Who owns what when employees use their own tech

A simple principle is that you own only what you pay for -- and slavery is illegal

My Twitter colleague Brian Katz (@bmkatz) relayed to me and his other Twitter followers a question asked in various forms at this week's Interop conference: Who owns the phone number for a BYOD item? Who owns the Twitter handle when an employee tweets? My first reaction was, "Why is this even a question? The employee owns the number or handle if it's his or her account." Upon reflection, I'm sticking with that answer.

But the larger issue deserves some exploration: When employees bring their own technology to the table, who owns it? It's a real question for IT, which is charged with managing the security of corporate information no matter where it flows. It should also be a question for HR and the C-suite executives as to where responsibility lies on issues related to company brand, identity, and work process.

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As the consumerization-of-IT phenomenon continues to take root, the old underlying assumption -- what you do at work belongs to the company -- doesn't apply so neatly. For many workers, personal and business are not separated by an iron curtain, as they were until the 1980s. Many of us work at home after hours, few companies provide equipment for home offices any more, almost no company provides employees company cars these days, and most companies have accepted that in return people will do online shopping, make personal calls, and conduct other personal business at the office -- if they even have an office.

The BYOD phenomenon has further muddied those porous boundaries. But companies like that murkiness when it benefits them (no longer having to pay for equipment or having employees available at very flexible hours) and dislike when it may carry a risk (employees saying unpleasant things on Twitter or Facebook or installing personal apps on work equipment).

There's an easy principle, though, that companies should follow: If you want to control it, you need to own and pay for it. If you're willing to let the employee own and pay for it, you cede most of your control.

Most companies already follow these principles, even if they don't know it. For example, when an employer reimburses an employee's mileage, the employer asserts no ownership of the employee's car or how it is managed. Likewise, when an employer reimburses telephone expenses made from a home line, the employer doesn't assert ownership of that number, the choice of service provider, or use of the phone itself.

Why would you treat an iPad, a smartphone, a home PC, a hands-free in-car system, a GPS device, or another employee-owned item and related service differently? You shouldn't.

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