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When the alternative is abject failure, then whether you like it or not, you must transform your slow-mode IT.

In my last Cortex newsletter I explained that the trimodal pattern from Value Chain Mapping wouldn't fix the well-known issues with bimodal IT. I've also gone on the record taking issue with Gartner's questionable advice to let slow go slow. Instead, my advice for getting out of the bimodal IT trap is to fix slow.

Fix slow, you say? Easier said than done! After all, enterprises have been struggling with legacy modernization and migration initiatives for decades, with woefully limited success. Why should we expect any better luck this time around?

Even if we did have some magic wand that would resolve all our legacy technology issues, we still have all the people in slow IT, following all of those slow processes they've been following in one form or another for years.

The good news: we're not necessarily doomed to repeat history. Modernization ain't what it used to be - or at the least, doesn't have to be.

If we look at slow, traditional IT and jump to the conclusion that just because we found its issues intractable before, that necessarily means we will again, then it's time for a rethink.

As a matter of fact, the world of IT has changed over the last ten years or so. We've been experiencing unprecedented innovation across the board - innovation in technology as well as in how people organize and accomplish tasks.

Let's take a look at three differences between today's modern, digital context for enterprise IT as compared to conventional wisdom - wisdom that may have applied only a handful of years ago.

The Risk Inflection Point
In many cases, the primary reason an enterprise was unable to modernize its IT organization was simply due to a lack of will. Executives figured it was too expensive and risky, and thus were unable to make the decision to move forward.

Today such risk-adverse thinking has changed. The first difference that is upending traditional decision making around traditional, slow mode IT is what I call the opportunity risk inflection point. It's still true that addressing the core challenges of slow IT is a risky endeavor. What's different, however, is the associated opportunity risk.

At some point, the risk of not transforming traditional IT surpasses the risks inherent in moving forward with such transformation. After all, change is always difficult. People will only change when not changing is even more painful.

Like it or not, we've reached that point.

If your goal is simply to manage costs and maximize efficiency, you're unlikely to make a big bet on the digital transformation of your IT organization. As Lydia Leong from Gartner said in a tweet, "Gartner believes that yes, some projects should indeed prioritize safety-and-efficiency over speed-and-agility."

However, if the result of making the ostensibly ‘safe' bet is for the entire enterprise to cease to be competitive and thus accelerate its downward slide to failure, your willingness to take greater risks with your digital investments becomes the more prudent decision. And if that means betting on agility, so be it.

Today's enterprises are hitting that critical inflection point now, if they haven't already - and many of them already have. In fact, your competition may already be ahead of you in this regard.

True, they may make missteps along the way, just as you might. But prioritizing safety and efficiency over speed and agility is now more likely to lead to strategic failure than taking the risk on transforming your slow-mode IT.

Customer-Driven Self-Service
The second difference between today's digital world and enterprise IT as usual is the fact that customers are driving enterprise technology decisions more than ever before.

From consumers interacting with your company via their smartphones to employees accessing Salesforce, customers (now including employees, suppliers, and others) are setting the bar for how they expect to interact with your organization.

This new emphasis on the customer is at the heart of digital transformation - and that transformation affects all aspects of the enterprise. This paradigm shift forces companies to rethink all aspects of how they organize their efforts.

It wasn't too long ago enterprises divided up their organizations into front office and back office. The front office took care of customer-facing activities, while the back office handled finance, manufacturing, product development, and other tasks that didn't directly involve customers.

As the organization goes, so goes IT. As Conway's Law would suggest, enterprise IT ended up dividing along the same lines.

In the digitally transformed enterprise, however, there is no back office. Instead, all functions are essentially front office, as the customer is now driving decisions throughout the organization. This profound change goes far deeper than a ‘fast' vs. ‘slow' argument. It requires a complete rethink of IT's entire reason for being.

What must the IT organization do, then, to support previously back office functions as they become front office, customer-facing capabilities? The answer: IT must increasingly focus on supporting self-service.

This shift of focus from traditional back office priorities to self-service is already well underway in most enterprises. The aforementioned Salesforce, as well as its entire ecosystem of partners and the rest of the enterprise SaaS space is essentially delivering self-service capabilities to users.

Some of these capabilities are traditionally front-office like customer relationship management, but increasingly back office capabilities like accounting and product lifecycle management are also available via SaaS - thus blurring the front office/back office distinction.

In fact, self-service is finding its way into all corners of the organization. Enterprise app stores are springing up, delivering all manner of capabilities to an increasingly broad audience, who are now just as accustomed to using mobile devices to access IT-based services as computers.

Also part of the self-service movement is the ‘citizen' trend. Integration tasks are shifting to self-service, as citizen integrators take the helm. Citizen analysts are leveraging big data tools as data analysis shifts to self-service. Even citizen developers are leveraging the self-service capabilities in low-code application platforms to build applications.

This shift to self-service is changing the entire frame of reference for traditional, slow-mode IT. Instead of focusing on efficiency and safety, IT's role is now to support and empower self-service - an entirely different context from the slow mode context for IT.

The Rise of Self-Organization
The third difference between modern, digital IT and how enterprises have traditionally run their IT organizations is the rise of self-organization.

Self-organizing teams have facilitated innovation and have also been a central part of Agile software development approaches for over fifteen years now - but primarily at the ‘two pizza' team level. Today, however, DevOps is paving new inroads for self-organization in enterprises today - scaling well beyond the small teams familiar from Agile projects.

DevOps, however, need not stop with the dev and ops teams. Organizations are finding they must mix in security and compliance professionals as well - and as DevOps becomes ‘SecDevOps' and finally ‘BizDevOps,' self-organization eventually extends horizontally across the digitally transformed organization.

For organizations stuck in the bimodal trap, however, all this DevOps goodness belongs to the fast mode, leaving slow mode to its traditional, hierarchically-managed org charts. Hierarchies have become the security blankets of slow-mode thinkers, uncomfortable with change.

But remember the risk inflection point - not changing is worse than changing. Not coincidentally, we also have the new paradigm of organizational structure that the fast mode is teaching us, often within the cube farms of IT.

This transformation is perhaps the most difficult of all, because it means that people have to change their behavior at work - how they make decisions, how they interact with colleagues, and how they take responsibility for their own contributions to their organizations.

But unlike the numerous business fads that have come and gone over the years, self-organization can change the game. Bringing self-organization to any organization struggling with bimodal IT can empower people to resolve many of the organizational limitations that keep slow mode slow.

The Intellyx Take
The point of this article is not simply to explain why the challenges with slow-mode IT are different today from a few years ago. The real point is that enterprises have no real choice in the matter. When the alternative is abject failure, then whether you like it or not, you must transform your slow-mode IT. And in fact, there's a good chance you've already started.

The question still remains, however, just how to go about fixing slow IT. Self-organization is necessary, but doesn't tell the whole story. Self-service is also one trend that is shifting the traditional IT load, but doesn't explain how to deal with the intractable messes that many hidebound IT shops struggle with every day.

That being said, we need to start somewhere. Traditional modernization approaches aren't the answer - we must update our thinking about how to go about implementing change at the same time we implement change itself. This Cortex lays some groundwork for answering the big question, how do we fix slow - but there's far more to be said on this point. Stay tuned!

Intellyx advises companies on their digital transformation initiatives and helps vendors communicate their agility stories. As of the time of writing, none of the organizations mentioned in this article are Intellyx customers. Image credit: Salim Virji.

More Stories By Jason Bloomberg

Jason Bloomberg is a leading IT industry analyst, Forbes contributor, keynote speaker, and globally recognized expert on multiple disruptive trends in enterprise technology and digital transformation. He is ranked #5 on Onalytica’s list of top Digital Transformation influencers for 2018 and #15 on Jax’s list of top DevOps influencers for 2017, the only person to appear on both lists.

As founder and president of Agile Digital Transformation analyst firm Intellyx, he advises, writes, and speaks on a diverse set of topics, including digital transformation, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, devops, big data/analytics, cybersecurity, blockchain/bitcoin/cryptocurrency, no-code/low-code platforms and tools, organizational transformation, internet of things, enterprise architecture, SD-WAN/SDX, mainframes, hybrid IT, and legacy transformation, among other topics.

Mr. Bloomberg’s articles in Forbes are often viewed by more than 100,000 readers. During his career, he has published over 1,200 articles (over 200 for Forbes alone), spoken at over 400 conferences and webinars, and he has been quoted in the press and blogosphere over 2,000 times.

Mr. Bloomberg is the author or coauthor of four books: The Agile Architecture Revolution (Wiley, 2013), Service Orient or Be Doomed! How Service Orientation Will Change Your Business (Wiley, 2006), XML and Web Services Unleashed (SAMS Publishing, 2002), and Web Page Scripting Techniques (Hayden Books, 1996). His next book, Agile Digital Transformation, is due within the next year.

At SOA-focused industry analyst firm ZapThink from 2001 to 2013, Mr. Bloomberg created and delivered the Licensed ZapThink Architect (LZA) Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) course and associated credential, certifying over 1,700 professionals worldwide. He is one of the original Managing Partners of ZapThink LLC, which was acquired by Dovel Technologies in 2011.

Prior to ZapThink, Mr. Bloomberg built a diverse background in eBusiness technology management and industry analysis, including serving as a senior analyst in IDC’s eBusiness Advisory group, as well as holding eBusiness management positions at USWeb/CKS (later marchFIRST) and WaveBend Solutions (now Hitachi Consulting), and several software and web development positions.

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