If we let every vendor determine the definition of customer experience for us, then we run the risk of assuming our only job is to paint smiles on people’s faces.

The task of remodeling modern businesses around information technology tends to resemble a sculptor remodeling a face from moist clay over and over, without looking at a model.

First, we tell ourselves, the task before us is to get everyone on the same page, align everyone’s goals, make sure we’re all working to fulfill the same dream.

Then once we find ourselves mitigating the inevitable arguments about how to go about that, we tell ourselves, our first task is to separate our responsibilities, delegate tasks, reduce jobs down to their smallest components. Become agile, work incrementally, set achievable goals.

Next, once we total up the achievable, incremental goals we’ve incrementally achieved thus far, and find they don’t match the bottom line, we tell ourselves our first job is to get everyone on the same page, mash everything back together, start over from a fresh model.

We keep taking first steps, over and over and over.

Parallelism in Thought and Deed

Getting past this rut has been the concern of Mary Mesaglio, one of Gartner Research’s vice presidents. In July 2014, Mesaglio and colleague Simon Mingay co-authored the pivotal work on “bimodal IT” that spurred organizations into rethinking whether it’s possible for them to think about their connections with their customers in two modes, simultaneously.

One mode is more innovative and potentially more disruptive. The other mode is more conservative and potentially more powerful. In bringing bimodal IT into the spotlight, Mesaglio and Mingay resurfaced an old question: Is organizational alignment across departments not only unnecessary, but impossible?

There may not yet be a firm answer to this. But clues that such an answer may yet emerge come from studying the behavior and culture of organizations coping with the bimodal aspect.

Are they developing parallel infrastructures? Are they reconstructing their old silos? And have any of them found one leader who can drive both modes forward?

“We did not find that,” responded Mesaglio to CMSWire’s question as to whether bimodal thinking leads to parallel infrastructures. Although she had heard of one case in her research, “to the degree that it’s happening, I would say that it’s a total misinterpretation of the concept, and also a bad idea.

Mesaglio drew for us (verbally) a Venn diagram, perhaps picking up a few elements from Dr. Jerry Luftman’s four-quadrant graph of 1996. One circle on the left — or “bubble” as she calls it — represents the traditional “Information Systems” (IS) domain, dating back to the 1970s. Another circle on the right represents the breakthrough technologies of the last ten years: cloud, social media, and mobility.

There’s already considerable cohesion between these two domains, she explained. “But there is a third bubble that’s being added as we speak:” a new, third bubble that may or may not end up being named “the physical smart world.”

It’s made up of operational and logistics technologies, plus the Internet of Things (IoT).

“It includes the physical world where every non-trivial object becomes smart,” she said matter-of-factly, in a way that would have sent shivers down Ray Bradbury’s spine.

These are not “Mode 1,” “Mode 2” or even “Mode 3” circles. Their overlap in Mesaglio’s model is to illustrate the absence of parallelism: her observation that these are domains of skills representing what people are capable of contributing to their organizations.

The overlap may vary from company to company, but the idea here is that there are people whose skill domains will reside in the center of all these overlaps.

“Somebody has to be managing this. Somebody has to be in the center of those three circles,” she said — a place which Gartner is working to classify as “the nexus.”

As the third circle evolves into a platform in its own right, Mesaglio believes, somebody has to step up to the plate and manage it as a platform too, along with both of the others.

Three Circles and Two Modes

If you’re confused, it’s because this can be confusing.

It needs to all be extrapolated into 3D: In this emerging Gartner model, there are two modes for applying oneself to any of three domains.

One domain is the product of conventional client/server technology, and is the descendant of the mainframe era where functionality was centralized and users were distributed.

The second domain is the relatively new realm of cloud dynamics and mobile applications, where functionality is distributed and the usage model is focused around individuals.

And the third domain is the product of the IoT, where both the functionality and the users/consumers of it are widely distributed, including around inanimate objects made “smart.”

The two modes of IT, then, describe methods of working within any of these domains. Unlike many analyses that depict conventional technology as slow and meticulous (like an appeals court), and new technology as agile and lively (like a laundry detergent), Mesaglio and her colleagues see the virtues of meticulous planning and agile execution, and believe there may be a way to achieve both simultaneously.

While the exact method for achieving this, Mesaglio concedes, may yet be discovered in practice, she believes that there needs to be a person at the center of it.

I suggested “conductor” and “orchestrator,” but she didn’t seem ready to settle on that just yet.

“Somebody in an enterprise has to be able to think in those terms,” she told me, “an architect or a CIO or a CTO, I don’t know who, but somebody has to be thinking in terms of those three things being joined up.”

Many organizations today, I noted, bestow the “chief-something-officer” title to individuals given the authority to act as a kind of “czar” over a job domain.

“To clarify, I don’t mean some kind of a czar sitting on a throne above the three circles,” she responded. “I mean that, if we want to create value, it’s inevitable that these three worlds that are currently separate, will clash.”

Mesaglio agreed with me that a job search conducted today for a person capable of merging all these skill sets and displaying equal adroitness with each one, would be fruitless.

But when a technology domain (the Internet being one example) becomes so pervasive as to be virtually everywhere, it no longer lends itself to being isolated and assigned to the C-suite.

“These three worlds can’t remain separate,” she decided. “Not to say there’s going to be a czar conducting everything on top of it, and not to say that the merging is going to be pretty and un-chaotic.”

She cited the work of her Australia-based Gartner colleague Kristian Steenstrup, who focuses on operational technologies in industries (e.g., petroleum, transportation, mining). From Steenstrup’s perspective, the merger of technology domains will not, and cannot, be just a few years down the road.

Balance of Powers

So Mesaglio found herself ironically coping with two simultaneous pressures. Call them “modes,” if you need a simpler word for them: the pressure for technology to converge, coupled with the struggle to resist change.

Engineers in the realm of operational technologies continue to produce innovations specific to that realm, she said, without knowing the first thing about IT architecture or security. Nor would they think about consulting IT first.

When we say that every industry is digital industry, that every customer interaction is digital experience, we don’t often place ourselves in the middle of a coal mine or a subway tunnel. But try telling the people who work there that they aren’t masters of technology.

What Mesaglio may have discovered are opposing forces, each of which, left to its own devices, would produce a seemingly inevitable, and perhaps desirable, outcome. One is the evolution of information technology, by at least three different, simultaneous means. The outcome there would be a merger of all IT into a bright, magnificent world of ubiquitous access.

The other is the need for stability — for reliable, proven methods that can be trusted for leveraging one’s business model. Disruption is a fun topic at business conferences, but try building a business model around it that lasts longer than five years.

Perhaps through these two forces, there emerges a kind of churn that blends separate realms of technology together.

“The way we think about things now, as three separate worlds, won’t be useful over time,” Mesaglio said.

There will be a kind of sorting out process — slow, meticulous, well-planned. Just the ticket for Mode 1 thinking, and perhaps the continued justification for Mode 1 in the enterprise.

It may seem strange for us to leave the principal question of this part of our discussion open-ended: Who is ultimately responsible for digital experience?

In trying to model a final answer (yes, it helped that I phoned a friend), we came to an unexpected realizations: Any person who finds herself the “orchestrator” of information technology in her enterprise, must step outside the comfort zone of the skill set and methodology with which she was trained, to embrace a seemingly contradictory way of thinking.

If she’s accustomed to quarterly reports and annual plans, she must adapt to agile teams and incremental goals. And if she hails from the realm of Agile methodology, she needs to synchronize herself with the established rhythms of her business.

Yet her objective will not be to act as a repeating station for the mantras of vendors. Whether she is a C-something-O, an IT director, a marketing manager, or a senior engineer, this person will be able to step into the other person’s shoes, adopt his mode of thinking, and see the world from his point of view.

It’s a dream. For now, it’s a good one.

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Title image by Marta Esteban Fernando.