Leadership by Geoff Colvin

Occupy Wall Street: Yes, there is organization

December 7, 2011: 11:35 AM ET

It may seem nebulous, but the movement against corporate America is developing a structure, and tapping into tech to stay alive.

Occupy Wall StreetFORTUNE -- To those of us inside, or orbiting, the corporate world, the packs of occupiers all over the world appear antithetical to what we consider an organization.

They don't want to achieve their goals, which seem scattered, via Washington. They refuse to have a single, representative face. Besides, the goals and processes of each Occupy movement vary by city. How much planning does it take to be nebulously ticked?

Still, hundreds of thousands of people all over the world are frustrated enough to keep showing up in public places since the first 20 or so people took over Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan in September. Since then, the movement has started to form a backbone, even after hundreds of occupiers in New York City were evicted from the park in mid-November.

Many big businesses would love to replicate the construction of such a backbone, using technology to turn a local, contained idea into a movement.

It's a bit of a misnomer to describe the expansion of Occupy Wall Street as organic because it progressed much more like a viral YouTube cat video than a beanstalk. A community formed around the first crowd at Zuccotti Park to support their basic needs, says Justin Wedes, a former teacher and now a full-time occupier. People originally used Twitter to get donations of food, water and shelter, he says.

See also: American Express CEO: Pay attention to OWS

But as more people joined, OWS developed second-tier services such as mediators to resolve conflicts and people, including Wedes, who handle press relations. And instead of sprouting up next to rivers or ports, or other resource-rich areas, these communities formed, globally, around dissent.

Nearly limitless digital space has accommodated this expansion. Organizers collaborate with each other using shared Google docs. Not all of the documents are shared with everyone, but pretty much anyone can access any document they'd like to see by contacting the right people.

Occupiers present their ideas at general assembly meetings via working groups, which are made up of two or more people with a common cause.

The website NYCGA.net contains minutes from all of the general assembly meetings. Organization information is openly available on Twitter and are categorized with hashtags like #OWS and #needsoftheoccupiers. Not all of those needs are being met, Wedes says, and many people participating still need food and clothes, most, if not all, of which come from donations.

While occupiers are still struggling in some ways to meet its members' basic needs, OWS has met the intellectual needs of some tech-savvy supporters. Many programmers work for OWS after they finish their day jobs, Wedes says. This is a much-coveted population of potential hires for big business, and they're donating their brain space to OWS because they like the creative freedom. (In fact, one occupier was recently recruited for a job at a financial firm, of all places, while protesting in Zuccotti Park.)

See also: Occupy protesters take over foreclosed homes

That creative freedom has led to some innovative solutions. A group of occupiers are developing a web application called "studio occupy." It's a video editing software that allows people to share raw footage that occupiers or supporters can edit collaboratively. OWS-friendly programmers are also coding a cloud-based calendar that should map out events, spaces and relevant knowledge, such as nearby police activity.

The lack of a hierarchy may appeal to computer whizzes and programmers, a community plugged in to the DIY culture. While their overall aims still seem hazy to the rest of us as we put in time for our hard-earned paychecks. Those goals are forming, Wedes insists, and they will come to fruition outside of Washington and Wall Street.

Ultimately, Wedes would like for these scatter-shot occupations to become sustainable communities. The next step will be to connect Occupy movements to nonprofits or small businesses to make them financially sustainable. Occupy Wall Street already has a small business working group. The plan for long-term sustainability should start to take shape, hopefully by next fall, Wedes says, since major social movements are more difficult to stage in the freezing cold (this winter will likely be hard enough).

We'll see. In many ways, the global OWS movement is large and clunky -- full of competing agendas that make it difficult to identify common goals, much less accomplish them. But, in another way, OWS within certain regions already has the kind of organizational agility that many companies could probably copy, to their benefit. Wedes wanted to celebrate the one-month anniversary of OWS, but none of the protesters had the money for a $200 sheet cake. Within a day, Wedes says he found a bakery that would accept online, piecemeal donations from supporters, and the people at Zuccotti had their victory party.

It was an example of successful, fast, crowd-sourced funding.

So when you look at the cloud of drum circles, meetings and angst that is Occupy Wall Street, there may not be a coherent message or strategy, but there is a nascent one. And for now, at least, there is sometimes cake.

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About This Author
Shelley DuBois
Shelley DuBois
Writer - Reporter, Fortune

Shelley DuBois writes on management issues for Fortune.com. Before joining Fortune, she was a producer for National Public Radio's Science Friday and worked for Wired. Shelley has a graduate degree in science, health and environmental reporting from New York University. She lives in Brooklyn.

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