For a couple years now, I’ve been listening to the folks at Gartner talk about this concept of “bimodal IT.” That’s the firm’s term for enterprises maintaining two different types of IT at the same time. Mode 1 is stable, predictable, and avoids change, while Mode 2 is exploratory, built for speed and experimentation, and boasts a higher tolerance for trial and error.

Gartner did it again at its early December Data Center, Infrastructure, and Operations Management Conference in Las Vegas. This time, Gartner analyst Ray Paquet used his keynote to connect success implementing bimodal IT to how well an organization will do as a digital business—something increasingly critical to a broad swath of companies. “Bimodal IT is correlated with digital performance,” he stated.

High stakes for bimodal IT

I believe that raises the stakes. Especially given how much of enterprise revenue Gartner believes will come from digital business. According to the research Ray quoted, that figure is 18% of enterprise revenues in 2015, rising to 41% in 2020. “This is a gargantuan opportunity—or a gargantuan headache,” said Ray.

Gartner spent quite a lot of stage time encouraging enterprises to jump on the bimodal bandwagon, and also making sure they know what they are in for. Honestly, though, maintaining the traditional Mode 1 stuff while also innovating in Mode 2 sounds like it would require supporting two separate teams, with two separate mindsets, which sounds hard to do.

Some attendees commenting on Twitter liked Gartner’s approach. Other folks didn’t buy in on the framing at all. Cloud guru Simon Wardley, a senior principal researcher from CSC in the U.K., was quick to shoot down the approach as too scattered. In a blog post, Simon wrote that “the more I look, the worse it gets.”

Simon went on to note that “Certainly this might give you a short term bump in efficiency and delivery. The problem is there’s no group identifying common patterns and evolving them.” Simon countered with his own concepts about how IT systems at large organizations need so-called “pioneers,” “settlers,” and even “town planners”—incorporating both agility and stability—to properly manage the shift to digital.

To be fair, Ray and the other Gartner analysts did outline advice on “unlocking Mode 1 systems for innovation” and “industrializing Mode 2 systems” to make this whole system of IT and the people that run it eventually come together. But even Ray conceded, “This sounds easier than it, in fact, is.”

Despite the inherent contradictions of the advice and a bit of attendee skepticism, Gartner pretty aggressively pushed its clients (as it has done since it started talking about bimodal IT) to move ahead with adding Mode 2 capabilities. Ray and the other speakers did spend time on what will likely be the hardest question: How do you eventually reconcile these two approaches?

More cultural than technical?

Several analysts gave nods to the fact that a lot of the heavy lifting that needs to be done is cultural and related to skillsets and the psychology of IT operations folks. “IT would be so much easier if it weren’t for people,” noted Tom Bittman, tongue firmly planted in cheek.

Or as conference attendee and Twitter commenter Tal Klein of Lakeside Software put it, “IT is hard and you’re probably doing it wrong. But so is everybody else.”

Tom’s co-keynote presenter, Dave Cappuccio, summed it up this way: “The answer to complexity is not a fix, but a cultural change.” And that, my friends, means you have to at least experiment with agile approaches, with DevOps, with cloud. Gartner encouraged all of this. “We’re not saying that Mode 2 is undisciplined. It merely accepts failure,” Ray said. That’s something a lot of smaller organizations (including many of our customers, including FlightStats) know inherently. Experimentation contains risk, but it can also buy results—sometimes big, positive results that you never could have gotten to incrementally.

A good idea … and inevitable

After hearing Gartner analysts’ directives for larger enterprises on bimodal IT for a while now, I’m coming to the conclusion that while no one knows exactly how to do it (and there’s no “one size fits all,” for sure), it is the right thing to do. It’s a good idea for enterprises. And, frankly, it’s inevitable. Even the largest companies can’t afford to simply hang on to the old and not try the new. The stakes for digital business are too high.

Given that, I think Ray’s advice for jumping into “Mode 2” IT is solid from what I’ve heard from New Relic customers. His basics are simple:

  1. Start before you’re ready (as nerve-racking as that sounds).
  2. Choose “island” projects that are easily separated.
  3. Experiment and test by failing (and make sure you “failed small”).

And if you need advice or help, comb through the pages of our blog. We’ve got lots of stories of people doing this … and doing it well.


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Jay is SVP of Marketing at New Relic. View posts by .

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