Last week in CMSWire, we began a re-examination of the emerging, evolving and sometimes self-renovating principle of “bimodal IT.” It’s an effort by organizations to cope with change on two levels simultaneously, but it’s also a movement by vendors to capitalize upon the need to manage change.

While we tend to dip into the bottomless bucket of change metaphors far too often, the truth within organizations is that change is far too gradual. 

The sudden culmination of mobile technologies, high-bandwidth broadband and cloud-based delivery has only thrown organizations off their game plan because, for the past quarter-century, their technology cycles have been rooted to product cycles. So much of their technology investments have yet to fully amortize.

This much stuff was never supposed to become this obsolete, this soon.

The Two-Cycle Engine

The problem the bimodal IT concept was intended to address was the implementation of business processes that incorporated new information technology, but which bypassed the information technology department. 

In most organizations, IT was never prepared to deal with this much uncertainty, wrote Gartner vice presidents Mary Mesaglio and Simon Mingay in July 2014 in their seminal work, “Bimodal IT: How to Be Digitally Agile Without Making a Mess.”

Yet the resulting discussion on the subject has compelled Mesaglio to consider the way she and Mingay presented their positions, especially to help eliminate the correlation of “Mode 1” and “Mode 2” in their projection with “then” and “now,” “old” and “new,” or even “slow” and “fast.”

“It’s not that there’s no innovation happening in Mode 1. There’s tons of innovation happening in Mode 1,” declared Mesaglio in an interview with CMSWire. “Alternate delivery models, virtualization of servers. However, it’s the way in which it happens that is different.”

What Mesaglio made absolutely clear during this interview was that Mode 1 is not a separate group of people, a separate department of the company and especially not a separate subdivision of technology. It is a cycle. The Mode 1 cycle is more traditional, more predictable and based on less uncertainty. It is not devoid of agility.

“Whereas in Mode 2, you’re really operating in an area where uncertainty is the norm, not the exception,” she continued, “where you have to be able to advance even when you cannot define everything ahead of time and where you’re going to need to react and respond to things that emerge, as and when they emerge.”

The real suggestion here is a bipartite strategy of coping with change — one which attempts to realize that an organization cannot simply cease planning with consideration and forethought, simply because vendors decide to accelerate their product cycles.

Certainly vendors would love to see the widespread implementation of a pre-conditioning system that renders them more susceptible to making purchasing decisions in shorter product cycles, much like planned obsolescence in many other forms of consumer products manufacturing. Wouldn’t it be nice if technology predictably died every two years, or even eighteen months?


Mesaglio’s suggestion, in stark contrast, is that there should be a strategy for certainty and a strategy for uncertainty. If, in that most basic form, it does not seem so much like a new idea, that’s because it isn’t.

“Information activities present a special organizational problem,” wrote Peter F. Drucker in Management in 1973. “In the terms the chemist uses, they are ‘bi-valent;’ they have two faces, two dimensions and require two different ‘bonds.’ Unlike most other result-producing activities, they are not concerned with one stage of the process but with the entire process itself. This means that they have to be both centralized and decentralized.”

Drucker approached the problem from the perspective of designing organizations around the flow of information between people. Mesaglio is approaching the problem from the perspective of organizing people to better suit the flow of information. But it’s the same problem.

“A big mistake is when you’re talking with the CFO and you have one way of evaluating possible new investments,” explained Mesaglio. “That includes the use of a business case that is highly detailed — that can tell you how many people you’re going to need, how much time they’re going to be spending, how much money they’re going to be spending, what the ROI should be and that kind of business plan.

“Bad things happen when you confuse rigor with detail at that level,” she continued. “That is, you consider that, if something is going to be rigorous — I should say ‘yes’ to it because it’s been rigorously analyzed — it has to include a lot of detail about what will happen. That’s a mistake when you’re in the Mode 2 world. It’s not a mistake when you’re in the Mode 1 world.”

When Worlds Collide

Mesaglio is clear here in articulating that there are not two groups of people in this discussion. Rather, there are two simultaneous frames of working.

What is not clear, and what she tacitly acknowledges may not yet be clear, is how a CFO transcends what she calls “worlds.” While there may be two frames of mind, and while she suggests that both are equally valid and valuable in organizations, what has not emerged from this discussion yet is a formula for how these worlds coexist without, to invoke Velikovsky’s vision, spectacularly colliding.

She knows what the variables are, so it’s not like a formula can’t be found. She openly concedes that it is difficult, for herself and even for Gartner as a whole.

“As you said, things tend to build and build and build until there’s some type of tipping point,” she said at one point, referring to an analogy I’d invoked earlier about the illusion of technological change. “So you can see the lines in the sand, the signals and you can make relatively good, pretty strong predictions about what can happen next technologically.

“But what’s a little more difficult to predict is, when you include that sociological element, you combine human behavior with technology. If I had stood in front of you a decade ago and said ... what’s going to be the principal mode of communication is us with oversized thumbs, clumsily typing on itty-bitty keyboards? Any user experience analyst would have looked at me like I was crazy. There are all sorts of unpredictable things that happen when you add human behavior into the mix.”

In Part 3 of our discussion with Mary Mesaglio, we’ll look at the problem of who, within organizations, is charged with the problem of sewing together both worlds into one frame of reference.