Types of bimodal CIO

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By Ian Cox, CIO Adviser, Axin

This article is by Featured Blogger Ian Cox from his blog The CIO Leader

I have never been comfortable with the concept of bimodal IT. My initial reaction when I first read about bimodal – or two-speed IT as it was originally called before Gartner’s marketing people realised that ‘slow IT’ wasn’t good for sales – was that surely all of your IT has to work at the same speed. It is all connected and at some point the exciting systems of engagement have to integrate with the boring systems of record. And if the processes, people and technology associated with the back-office systems are operating at a different speed then this will ultimately limit the organisation’s ability to move quickly at the front-end.

Nothing I have heard or seen in the last couple of years has changed my view. Indeed as more businesses embrace digital, they are finding that legacy or back-office systems can have a key role to play in creating seamless customer experiences. If those systems are still being managed, developed and supported in the old way then they will place an immediate constraint on the organisation’s ability to respond quickly to changes in its markets.

And digital is not just about the customer-facing areas of the business. It is also about how the organisation works internally, how it interacts with partners and suppliers, and how quickly it can make changes to it business model to exploit opportunities and respond to threats. This inevitably involves many of the systems that bimodal would classify as mode 1 (slow IT before the rebrand). Surely agility and speed are just as important in these areas as they are for customer facing apps and solutions?

Have any start-ups or any of the well-known market disruptors adopted the two-speed approach? I think it’s very unlikely. If you were building an IT function from the ground-up today you wouldn’t split it into two groups that work in different ways and at different speeds. You would create an IT capability that operates entirely in mode 2 (agile and quick). So why is bimodal a suitable model for established businesses that are being challenged by new competitors that were built for agility and speed?

At best bimodal IT should be viewed as a stepping-stone on the journey towards making the entire technology platform and IT department fit for the digital world. It is not therefore an end state but more a recognition that, as CIOs transform their teams and the organisation’s technology for digital, there will inevitably be a period where different areas of IT will be at different stages of that journey. In fact there are likely to be multiple speeds or modes of IT during this transition and not just two.

In November Deloitte published the results of its 2015 global CIO study, which was based on surveys and interviews with over 1,200 CIOs and senior IT executives from around the world. Part of the study asked respondents to identify the ideal characteristics of a successful CIO and to also rank their own strengths against the same areas. The encouraging news is that the ability to influence stakeholders (79%) and communication and interpersonal skills (70%) were identified by a significant majority of IT leaders as being ideal characteristics.

Perhaps more worryingly, however, is that only 51% said that technology vision and leadership were key to being a successful CIO while only 49% identified the ability to lead in complex, fast-changing environments as being essential for IT executives. And even fewer respondents selected competencies related to developing digital capabilities and understanding markets and disruption as being important for today’s CIO.

I would argue that these are all essential skills for CIOs that want to play a key role in shaping and leading their organisation’s digital journey. For example, with other functions becoming more involved in technology investments and with some even holding their own IT budgets, it has never been more important for CIOs to be capable of setting the overall vision and direction for technology within the organisation. And digital markets move quickly, they are more dynamic than traditional markets and can be disrupted more easily. CIOs that are not comfortable leading in such environments will quickly find themselves marginalised as other executives step in to fill the gap.

Whilst these responses are worrying they are also not surprising as they are consistent with my own experience of the CIO community which seems to be naturally splitting into two distinct groups: those that think that the old ways of working are still appropriate (let’s call them mode 1 CIOs) and those that understand that the CIO role is changing and that different skills are needed to be successful in the digital world (mode 2 CIOs).

The bad news for mode 1 CIOs is that a bimodal model for IT leadership is no more appropriate than a two-speed approach to their platforms and departments. As businesses that have adopted the bimodal concept are no doubt beginning to discover, at some point the slower parts of your IT will start to constrain the organisation and hinder its ability to compete in fast-paced digital markets. And the same will happen for mode 1 CIOs; there will come a point – if it isn’t already happening – where the CIOs inability or refusal to provide the type of IT leadership and direction required for digital will start to hold the business back.

Mode 2 CIOs on the other hand get what it takes to lead in the digital age and are going from strength-to-strength; they are playing a key role in shaping their organisation’s business model, products and services. Instead of being bypassed or marginalised they are the person the rest of the organisation turns to for answers and to get things done.

As with the wider IT function and platform, there is only one style of CIO that is suitable for the digital age. There is only so long that mode 1 teams, systems and CIOs can survive before they are challenged by the demands of digital. And if they cannot adapt they will need to be bypassed or replaced altogether.

Originally published on The CIO Leader