MIT Sloan CIO Symposium: Bimodal IT, Agile and Speed

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MIT Sloan CIO Symposium: Bimodal IT, Agile and Speed

MIT Sloan CIO Symposium: Bimodal IT, Agile and Speed by Edward Hadley

At the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium last week, the discussion centered on digital transformation and how IT and business executives must work together to evolve and grow the business. In this third and final recap post, we’ll explore how leading organizations are operationalizing digital transformation projects in order to innovate and gain competitive advantage.

For starters, one thing was clear: you can’t rely solely on traditional methods and ways of working. Mendix CEO Derek Roos reiterates this point during a panel discussion focused on digital disruption. “You can’t just take existing IT and decide to go fast,” he said.

Create an Innovation Fast Lane with Bimodal IT

Instead, many organizations have begun adopting what research firm Gartner refers to as bimodal IT, or two-speed IT. In addition to a traditional development team focused on keeping the lights on, bimodal IT calls for the creation of a ‘fast lane’ designed to reduce the time to market for high priority digital transformation projects. Thus, the characteristics of each mode varies greatly:

  • Mode 1: IT-led development projects related to core systems and/or include clearly defined requirements. These projects emphasize stability and reliability, and are typically executed by specialized programmers working in long, linear development cycles. Gartner compares mode 1 development to running a marathon.
  • Mode 2: Business-led digital transformation projects that help innovate or differentiate the business. These projects emphasize speed and agility, and require a high degree of business involvement, fast turnaround, and frequent update. Gartner compares mode 2 development to running short sprints.


By distinguishing between these two modes, IT teams can ensure that they have the right people, process, and tools to support new business initiatives without impacting long-term maintenance projects.

Related: Fast Track Digitization with a Bimodal IT Strategy

Bimodal in Action: MassHousing Shrinks 18-Month Project to 12 Weeks

One Symposium attendee, Charlie Schiappa, CIO of non-profit public agency MassHousing, said his team now operates in a bimodal manner but he didn’t know the term existed at the time.

Looking to build an application to manage processes related to the Chapter 40B affordable housing law, Schiappa’s team spent a year producing a 1,200-page requirements document and was looking at another 18 months of development work in a traditional waterfall environment. “You do the math and you’re talking a lot of time and a lot of money,” he said.

Using the Mendix platform, two developers completed the 18-month project in just 12 weeks. Just as important, according to Schiappa, is that his new development style brought the agency’s end users into the development process, improving the end result.

“In the past we would do all of our testing at the end, and that would be the first time users would see an app in the flesh, so to speak,” he said. “Now, we’re able to show working prototypes to end users after two weeks, and weekly thereafter. This allows us to incorporate user feedback along the way and deliver the solution everybody wants.”

Agile as the Basis for Greater Conversation and Collaboration

Schiappa’s comments reflect another theme at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium: organizations adopting more iterative, collaborative development processes.

“Cross-functional collaboration is key, both for IT and business,” said Michael Nilles, CIO, Schindler Group, who was on the panel “Leading Digital: A Manifesto for IT and Business Executives.”

One mechanism for fostering greater collaboration between IT and business is agile—and not just agile in the capital ‘A’ sense.

“Agile is not just a development methodology; it’s the basis for better discussion & collaboration with the business,” said Ralph Loura, CIO of HP.  “It allows you to say, ‘Let’s start designing this together.’”

Touching upon on how digital transformation projects typically involve key business users in order to help identify and refine requirements, Brook Colangelo, EVP and CTO at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, said, “Show, don’t tell. Create prototypes, not PowerPoints. And pursue small chunk-able projects.”

At the end of the day, it’s about creating an environment where small, cross-functional teams are empowered to tackle important digitization projects and have the freedom and flexibility to act like a fast-moving startup. As one panelist commented, “You have to be willing to lose control to gain competitive advantage. Yesterday’s playing it safe is no longer playing it safe.”


Edward Hadley