A year ago, Anne Buff, thought leader with SAS Best Practices, was utterly certain that all companies needed to have a Chief Data Officer (CDO) to keep a company's online and digital operations on track.

She was wrong, she came to conclude, and explained why at last week's Enterprise Search & Discovery conference in Washington DC. 

Buff's realization about the role of the CDO, though, extends to the ever-growing universe of new digital-related titles that have emerged in the last few years.

There is chief data officer, of course. Thought leader, Buff wryly points out. And then there's a host of others. Chief digital officer. Chief analytics officer. Chief experience officer. Chief data architect. Data custodian. Data visualization designer. Chief knowledge officer. Chief wisdom officer. Data hygienist. Data trustee. Chief insights officer. Data quality officer and perhaps the most colorful of all, Transmedia Mastermind.

Chief 'Anything' Must Mean Something

The companies' initial impulse in creating these titles was understandable: they wanted to reflect the growing importance digital everything now has on the enterprise.

Invariably, however, the companies that create these catchy titles do so with little introspection about the roles and what they say about the company, Buff says. Thus, the employees that have these titles -- or three or four as the case often is at companies -- are done a disservice.

Let's start with the array of "chief" titles.

Chief implies the employee is a decision-maker with perhaps one or two people in the company able to override him or her in this particular area. Most certainly he has the highest level of expertise in this area in the company. In addition, her focus is not on tactical issues like ensuring a certain project is completed on time, but rather strategic. In short, this person is thinking along the lines of 'what will we need in five years time and are we building the groundwork now to support that need?'

"'Chief anything's fundamental role is to align the corporate brand and culture with whatever the focus is of that role," Buff said. "And that is done by leadership."

To be sure, many "chief" executive positions do follow this formula, especially in industries that are heavily regulated such as the financial sector. IT, though, is more likely to stray from this formula, Buff said, and create roles for all the wrong reasons.

A company might feel that a certain long-term IT projects – say, building out a mobile presence -- is a key priority and so it hires an engineer for the newly created role of chief mobile officer. Or maybe the company just fell victim to title inflation, which was endemic during the recession, when companies couldn’t or wouldn’t give raises but were happy to designate a valued employee an officer or expert.

Intersecting with Business

IT also has a tendency to blur lines between functional activities and business-related activities.

Consider, for example, these titles, which seem to reflect both an IT and infotech orientation: business steward, business data analyst, campaign expert, data alchemist.

Companies are entitled to a looser hand when they create titles that don't carry the "chief" prefix, but they should be aware of what messaging – however subtle – they are sending, Buff says.

Data hygienist, for example, brings to mind someone scrubbing data clean – and since the subject has been raised, what exactly was wrong with the data before this person was put into place?

Or data quality officer. This title sounds as though the company has placed data quality in a bureaucratic slot in the company's hierarchy – and therefore there is no need to ensure that high-quality data standards are baked in throughout the enterprise, Buff says.

Then again, that may be just the image the company wants to portray, Buff says—especially if the company is highly regulated and compliance is essential to staying in business, or at least on the right side of regulators.

A Wallet Full of Cards

Another problem with these catchy titles is that employees tend to accumulate more than one and that leads to role percentages, Buff says. So if an employee is a data quality officer, a business steward and a knowledge worker—with three separate cards to prove it--she will inevitable divide her work time according to the importance of these roles within the organization. That means she might devote one paltry day to data quality and focus her remaining time on the other activities.

Which is all well and good – overextended employees seem to be more the rule than the exception these days. But as Buff's overarching point makes clear, titles do speak for a company and its goals and mission. "Do you want to formally say to employees and customers that these roles are only worthy of part-time work?"