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The CIO for a digital era: A collaborative bi-modal approach

The CIO for a digital era: A collaborative bi-modal approach

There are at least six steps to consider before this strategy can become a reality.

'It is very hard to innovate within a team managing legacy systems. By creating a separate innovation team that is not constrained by legacy, an organisation can move at a greater rate of change, as has been shown by Spark New Zealand and Air New Zealand.'
'It is very hard to innovate within a team managing legacy systems. By creating a separate innovation team that is not constrained by legacy, an organisation can move at a greater rate of change, as has been shown by Spark New Zealand and Air New Zealand.'

Picture this: You are a CIO in a large enterprise and have no legacy applications/infrastructure and can choose to use any number of SaaS-based solutions to meet business needs. Sadly, that is not the reality for large enterprises.

Most enterprise organisations have large amounts of legacy systems but also want the freedom to focus on innovation by creating new digital services whilst also keeping the lights on. So what should a CIO actually do to make this happen and change reality?

One way of delivering innovation and stability is to take a “bi-modal approach” to delivery.

Gartner defines this “as the practice of managing two separate coherent modes of IT delivery, one focused on stability and the other on agility. Mode 1 is traditional and sequential, emphasising safety and accuracy. Mode 2 is exploratory and nonlinear, emphasising agility and speed”.

Whilst I support the bi-modal approach, I do not agree with focusing solely on innovation at the expense of just keeping the lights on. In this article, I will look at how taking a "collaborative bi-modal approach" can help a CIO, and ultimately an organisation, to become more innovative and customer focused whilst also transforming the organisation’s legacy systems.

The collaborative bi-modal approach will only work if the focus on innovation is not at the expense of legacy IT.


There are 6 key areas that an organisation and CIO should consider when looking to create a successful "collaborative bi-modal approach" within the business of IT:

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1. The CIO

The CIO is a key position within an organisation when it comes to leading a large-scale transformation initiative. They must be able to positively challenge the status quo, influence business leaders and set a vision and strategy that clearly details the desired transformation outcomes (e.g. taking a digital first approach).

Ideally the CIO has broad experience across industries as well as in the enterprise and start-up communities, so he/she will have received the benefit of working in a fast paced customer centric environment (e.g. UX, Agile or Lean) with the ability to apply these insights to an enterprise organisation.

It is vital that the CIO stays up to date with industry and technology trends (cloud or not? IoT, digital, SaaS) and can demonstrate, or at least has a view on, how these can be utilised by the organisation both now and in the future.

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Being relevant and current reduces an organisation’s need to look elsewhere for advice and technology solutions. Staying current may also require a review of how IT is structured.

Digital is not one particular “thing”. It’s a change in mindset and a move away from the traditional to being more about an organisation’s use of social media and analytics to drive decisions as well how it uses the "cloud" (SaaS, AWS or Azure), and it’s about having a mobile presence for its products, services and support. The strategies and subsequent use of social media, analytics, mobility and cloud by any organisation must coexist.

Innovation must also have a purpose – to solve a particular problem - otherwise innovating could just be seen as 'skunk works'.


Read more: IT teams: How to remain an organisational asset in this 'digital or die' era

2. Innovation

It is very hard to innovate within a team managing legacy systems. By creating a separate innovation team that is not constrained by legacy, an organisation can move at a greater rate of change, as has been shown by Spark New Zealand and Air New Zealand.

That said, legacy systems must not be over looked as being able to be transformed through innovation. In fact the innovation team within an organisation can work with those who manage such legacy systems to transform them over time for the digital age. A relatively small change such as automating server builds in the legacy environment could be a huge step forward. Innovation must also have a purpose – to solve a particular problem - otherwise innovating could just be seen as “skunk works”.

3. Team, culture and talent

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Searching out the right talent is also crucial to creating a collaborative bi-model approach. The right talent is multi skilled, comfortable with rapid change and has a willingness to collaborate towards achieving a shared vision. To enable your team to innovate there must be a supportive culture in place, where employees can have the time and freedom to innovate, and where they’re trusted and given authority to create and implement innovative solutions. To encourage innovation organisational leaders need to support innovation by removing inhibitors such as time spent dealing with day to day incidents. Another way to give your teams a chance to have their idea’s heard could be to have individuals/teams pitch ideas every month to senior leaders for possible implementation. If their idea is selected they could then have a set period of time to turn that idea into a product or service.

4. Get the basics right

If the IT team can’t deliver the basics (e.g. on projects, service levels or advice in general) then CIOs risk losing the trust of the organisation and may be overlooked for their advice to the executive team. If CIOs cannot consistently and quickly deliver to the needs of the organisation then he/she may see a proliferation of shadow IT within the company - again, a possible sign that IT is not being agile or responsive enough to meet the needs of the organisation. Above all, get the basics right so IT can build on solid technology decisions and solutions that support the organisation and its strategies (growth or otherwise). If necessary a partnership model may be appropriate where the CIO can look for suitable partners to assist in areas that IT does consider is core to its business.

5. Define a clear strategy

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What does IT stand for and how will it support organisational goals? How will it use and create digital services? How can IT support the organisation’s need to be more digital, in a world where the need to be digital or die is so prevalent? As Forbes (Cloud is the foundation for digital transformation, 2014) has recognised: "Since 2000, 52 per cent of companies in the Fortune 500 have either gone bankrupt, been acquired or ceased to exist". In my view, these organisations have failed to keep up with the rate of change resulting in their ultimate demise.

6. SaaS and cloud

I have separated out having a cloud strategy from an overall strategy as it is essential for articulating how an organisation should use cloud and SaaS-based services to support the current organisational needs, future growth and a possible move away from legacy systems reducing the need to invest capital in on-premise infrastructure and software. SaaS based services should also form a vital part of any future organisational strategy and should be compared with traditional services as part of any product selection. The use of SaaS based cloud applications can also ensure that the provision of organisational business continuity planning is inherently provided for because users can mostly work anywhere with an Internet connection. The SaaS-based approach also frees up the IT team from having to manage non-core tools such as email or service management systems. There are no upgrades, storage increase, server licenses or server management, because users are just given access when an approved service request is received. The use of SaaS-based services within an organisation can also give small (including start-ups) and large companies alike the flexibility around function, capacity and cost. Of course, with any cloud based services, suitable research and product selection should be undertaken to ensure it meets the organisation's requirements, both from an availability and a security perspective.

What about legacy IT?

Read more: Forrester to CIOs: Attend more marketing than technology conferences

The collaborative bi-modal approach will only work if the focus on innovation is not at the expense of legacy IT. Transforming legacy systems is a challenge but not impossible. To do it requires a CIO who has the vision, energy and leadership to deliver this collaborative bi-modal approach to IT work for an organisation and ultimately its customers. If CIOs keep the bi-modal approach very separate as per Gartner's description (“the practice of managing two separate coherent modes of IT delivery, one focused on stability and the other on agility. Mode 1 is traditional and sequential, emphasising safety and accuracy. Mode 2 is exploratory and nonlinear, emphasising agility and speed”), the IT team’s focus on supporting legacy systems may result in limited career progression and diminished future technology options. The innovation side of the bi-modal model approach should also look at ways to transform legacy systems whilst also using the teams assigned to support legacy systems as knowledge experts, therefore encouraging collaboration and a more inclusive approach to innovation.

IT should not just be about keeping the lights on – this historic strategy will not be good enough in this digital age. Organisations will require IT to guide them through periods of significant change or lead digital strategies and innovation. IT through the CIO must therefore be an influencer and leader of change and must ensure it can respond to the current and future needs of the organisation and lead industry changes by being flexible and having agility to respond to customer needs. This can be achieved by looking to implement a collaborative bi-modal approach to transform and innovate where the legacy systems are not pushed aside at the expense of innovation but are instead transformed through innovation.

The author at a recent CIO roundtable discussion in Auckland.
The author at a recent CIO roundtable discussion in Auckland.


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Peter Yates (@peteyatesnz) is head of operations and platform delivery at Spark Ventures (formerly Telecom Digital Ventures). His previous roles included technology services group manager/CIO at Foster Moore and IS infrastructure manager at Auckland Council.


Send news tips and comments to divina_paredes@idg.co.nz

Read more: When conventional business and IT leadership capabilities meet the new world

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