Despite all the buzzwords the technology industry habitually throws up, the theme that unites IT leaders isn’t as obvious as you might think, says Tim Ferguson.

Over the course of the past six months I’ve interviewed nearly 20 CIOs, discussing the big projects, technology priorities and challenges they’re all dealing with every day.

A number of common threads about what CIOs are focusing on have emerged during these conversations but only one has appeared consistently on the agenda for all these IT leaders.

What is the cause that unites CIOs, whatever their business? Cloud computing, perhaps?

Well, many CIOs are thinking about how cloud could play a role in their business. Indeed some – such as News International’s Paul Cheesbrough – are adopting cloud in a big way. Cheesbrough plans to move much of the organisation’s operations into the cloud, much as he did previously at the Telegraph Media Group.

But views on cloud vary wildly among CIOs.

CIOs disagree on many things but one factor unites them all

CIOs have widely different views on cloud, social networking and tablets but appear united on another issuesPhoto: Shutterstock

BAE Systems has had an internal cloud capability for building and testing apps for several years. Cloud computing is therefore something CIO Chris Coupland has already addressed, allowing him to spend time tackling other issues.

But at the opposite end of the spectrum, some CIOs are shying away from cloud. Jewellery group Signet Trading is looking at cloud in “a conservative way”, according to head of IT Alistair Fuller, due to concerns about the security of data.

Meanwhile, other IT chiefs just don’t see cloud computing having a place in their organisation.

“I think it’s like everything else in the computing world: it’s what fits your business. If it fits the business model and there are distinct advantages, then great. If it’s just today’s buzzword, well, let’s not play that game,” Salford University CIO Derek Drury told silicon.com.

So if it’s not cloud computing that’s uniting CIOs, what about other technology that’s getting the tech press excited. Social networking, maybe?

News International’s Cheesbrough is testing business-networking tools with a view to rolling them out further if the trial proves successful. But Cheesbrough is very much an exception. Most conversations I’ve had with CIOs suggest social networking isn’t something that’s overly bothering them.

Apart from businesses that do a lot of marketing or customer interaction, social networking doesn’t feature too prominently.

Tablets are another hot topic but, again, CIOs I’ve spoken to, while looking at what the iPad and similar devices could offer their business, are generally dealing with tablets from the point of view of employees bringing them into work rather than the organisation actively encouraging their use.

Most IT chiefs feel tablets are good in their own right but…

…can’t see how they have a place in their organisation and would probably prefer to do without the hassle of making sure they’re suitable for work use.

Having said that, some organisations are dabbling with and even encouraging the use of tablets. BAE Systems is piloting iPads and Specsavers is looking at how mobile workers could use tablet devices.

Honda UK, on the other hand, is looking at tablets but more in terms of developing its various websites and apps to offer a good user experience on the devices rather than for internal business use.

So again, like cloud computing and social networking, CIOs aren’t united in their views about tablet computing.

No, the theme that unites most CIOs isn’t cloud computing or social media or tablets. It’s simplification.

Almost every CIO I’ve spoken to recently is striving to simplify their technology infrastructure to make their operations more efficient and effective.

Take DHL Supply Chain, where CIO Hugo Patten is looking to simplify systems to reduce the complexity created by legacy technology from acquisitions. “From a service point of view, we need to have a single service desk, single desktop support and a single datacentre strategy,” he told silicon.com.

BAE Systems is implementing shared services across its international offices and standardising its back-office systems. “We’re on a journey of starting to consolidate and standardise some of our processes and then underneath that looking to be more effective and efficient with the IT that supports that,” CIO Chris Coupland said.

Birmingham Airport is looking at simplification from a tech supplier perspective, with head of IS Wayne Smith consolidating contracts to make them simpler and cheaper to manage.

The economic situation over recent years has certainly made efficiency a great priority but the arrival of cloud computing, social networking, tablet computing and the huge increase in the amount of data businesses deal with, makes simplification more important than ever.

Allow me to make a historical analogy. When countries have overextended themselves with commitments all over the world – like the US in the 1970s – they can end up being vulnerable and unable to take on new responsibilities without weakening their position.

And the same is true with corporate IT. Too many commitments and different approaches make it incredibly hard to be efficient and effective and to develop new capabilities in the future.

If CIOs are still wrestling with a complex and cumbersome infrastructure, how on earth can they effectively bring in these new technologies as well?

What the vast majority of CIOs I’ve spoken to have recognised is that there is an increasing need to consolidate and simplify technology.

If they can simplify successfully, CIOs will ensure that the systems they have are efficient and effective and that adopting emerging technology will add value rather than simply act as a distraction.