Social business lessons from #Occupy


Building on my previous post looking at how businesses can move from being a social brand to a social business, I thought I’d follow-up by examining how businesses can become more social from another, slightly different perspective: the global Occupy movements that have arisen on both sides of the Atlantic over the past few months.

Regardless of your politics, the occupy movement has undeniably mobilised and organised large and diverse groups of people to create a viable political movement powerful enough to warrant a major ‘crackdown’ (in Naomi Wolf’s terms) by the US authorities and single-handedly bring the Church of England to its knees in the UK in the time it takes many organisations to agree a meeting date.

Given the movement’s achievements in such a short space of time I wanted to investigate: whether we can pinpoint what makes #Occupy’s approach to organising so successful and if we can apply these insights to more conventional organisations?

A good starting point from which to answer these questions is a blog post from the Altimeter Group’s Rebecca Lieb who wrote a fascinating blog post last month about Occupy Wall Street. Called ‘Occupy Wall Street: Disruption & Leaderless Leadership’ Lieb’s ethnographic study of the way the movement organises itself asserts:

“While there’s no hierarchy in the movement, the level of sheer organization is tremendous. There are working groups for everything conceivable; not just health and legal and food, but around things like coaching, to help individuals define their own role within the movement, then devise a plan to fulfill that mission. These groups all have regular meetings at specified times and locations – anyone is welcome to take part, or to start their own group.”

This non-hierarchical approach, is, Lieb concludes: “one of the best examples of human organization I’ve witnessed.”

Contrast this form of organisation with the hierarchical and siloed approach usually taken by established or more conventional organisations.

This difference in approach was highlighted by our friend Anthony Mayfield recently when he discussed the tension between organisations operating as hierarchies versus networks:

“Hierachies are good at heavy lifting, do big things, permananence. But they are slow and can become sclerotic. Networks are good at change, speed, adapting. When we talk about social business design often we are talking about shifting the balance of power back in favour of networks.”

Clearly, then, as efficient and networked organisations social movements have the potential to teach hierarchical organisations how to become more social businesses.

But how can we adopt useful learnings from the occupy movement? While Altimeter’s blog post provides a flavour of the operational side of the movement, it doesn’t really provide us with a framework for applying their practices to a wider organisational environment.

Luckily, there’s a good body of knowledge on social movements and non-hierarchical organising that we can draw on as learning points to help organisations become more social.

The late British academic, Colin Ward, mapped out a set of three key pillars to help support non-hierarchical organisation which I think offers a good framework for designing social business processes:

Of course, not discussed by Ward is the fact that in the age of the social web, the glue binding these organisational approaches together is social technology – whether widely used, public platforms like Twitter, Youtube, blogs and Kick-starter in the case of the Occupy movement, or more professional enterprise-level tools adopted by more established organisations.

If you think what I’m suggesting sounds a little far-fetched then take a look at Goldsmith academic, Dan MacQuillan’s, fascinating blog post on digital innovation and the NHS.

Dan draws on his experience of social movements and outlines a vision for a more socialised NHS that becomes empowered through digital technology, socially networked stakeholders and a results focused approach, asserting:

A movement “is a form of collective organization with no formal boundaries, which allows participants to feel part of broad collective efforts while retaining their distinctive identities as individuals”. People get involved because they care, so there’s a lot of passion involved. The characteristics of a movement, as opposed to a formal organisation, is loosely coupled agility, openness and a tendency for new ideas to be rapidly spread and adopted.

In Dan’s powerful vision then, successful social organisations are in reality social movements. And that, I believe is the real lesson we can learn from the #Occupy movement.