First published in The Independent, 30 April 2008.
Traditionally, the term "tools of trade" was used to describe the hammers and screwdrivers that a tradesperson would need in a particular role.
Sometimes these essentials were provided by the employer but in a large number of cases, they were things that the employee was expected to provide for him or herself as a consequence of obtaining employment.
Think for a moment, if you will, about the tools of trade that you require in your role. If you work in an office, for example, almost inevitably your tools will include such things as your telephone and your computer. They might also include a mobile telephone and a laptop.
In the vast majority of cases, these types of tools are supplied by the employer to employees for the purpose of allowing them to discharge the requirements of their role.
And, in the usual course, the devices that you will use in your job are selected by the employer (often on the basis of financial constraint and economic efficiency), and the systems within which you will be required to work will also be defined by your employer.
But this now familiar model is on the verge of being displaced.
Employees are now more familiar with the use of technology in their private lives. And they are becoming more picky about the hardware that they use and systems as well.
For example, are you happy to trust your employer's discretion in the selection of your next mobile phone or would you prefer to pick it for yourself?
And how about if you wanted to use an iPhone – would you be happy to contribute some of the additional cost in its purchase over the office standard?
There is a growing trend whereby employers indulge this type of employee preference. It encompasses both hardware and software. And there is even a term to describe it: "consumerisation".
For example, the Chief Executive of Apple, Steve Jobs, has announced that the iPhone's latest software developments will make the device more palatable to corporate purchasers. One update will allow the device to connect seamlessly with Microsoft email systems meaning that an employee can choose to have Apple hardware even though an employer uses Microsoft software.
And as for software, consumerisation is leaving many employers to explore using the type of systems that employees use at home in the workplace – such as social networking tools, user generated content and Wikis (web-based software that allow users to create content collaboratively).
For instance, in undertaking its major review of legislation, the New Zealand Police offered the public access to a Wiki to allow user-generated contribution to the proposed reforms.
All of this has led to a prediction that within the next three years, 10% of all information technology spending will reside with employees. That means employees may pay for and bring their own technology to work as their primary tools. And the trend will also extend to employees customising the technology they will use while at work.
For example, more and more employees in New Zealand say that social networking sites such as Facebook are essential to their business – yet many employers block employee access to such internet tools at work. The current trend may mean that, far from repelling the technology, employers embrace it and encourage business socialising through online social networks.
So does all of this mean that New Zealand is headed towards a convergence of consumer and employer-based technologies? And, if so, what legal issues could arise?
For a start, problems already arise when some employees terminate their employment – and wish to take their cellphone with them. It is not unusual for an employee to claim that he or she has stored a vast amount of personal information on their work cellphone (such as the contact details for all their friends) – and that it will be prohibitively difficult to update them with a new cellphone number. Why not just take the phone with them?
These sorts of issues will become more complex when, for example, your "work phone" also contains your music collection, your family photographs and your video collection.
And what about if a software glitch at work causes all of these different things to be erased? Can the employer be held liable for deleting your summer holiday photographs?
In addition, what about privacy? Who "owns" my holiday pics – and can my employer have a look at them (if they are stored on its system)?
Quite apart from these tricky issues, there may also be some valid – and difficult – questions concerning intellectual property and confidentiality. It will conceivably become more difficult for an employer to control the dispersement of its intellectual property when it is being stored and conveyed on devices which are also utilised for personal use.
None of these issues are insurmountable. But the novelty of some of the problems that an employer will be required to face underlines the contemporary nature of this developing area.