According to the 1996 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 70% of workplace knowledge is learned informally (a statistic that is frequently referenced in the learning industry). While I haven't seen more recent data, my experience is that the informal learning trend holds true today.
So, what does informal learning look like? Maybe something like this:
You walk over to a colleague, and ask, “How do I get this widget to stop blinking?” (Of course, you ask someone who knows widgets really well and who is willing to share their knowledge.) Fortunately, most colleagues (at least the normal ones) won’t ask a series of true / false or multiple choice questions to check your understanding. Instead, they show you how to do it and then help you as you try. They might even jot down a few notes that you can reference the next time you troubleshoot that widget problem.
So, here’s my leap from that “over-the-partition” informal learning scenario to how social media can support social learning: YouTube (in other words, video learning). Why? Because video can be the virtual “over-the-partition” colleague. What users really want is to lean over the partition and say “Hey, how do I do this?” and to hear, “I’ll show you.”
YouTube is the world's most popular online video community allowing millions of people to discover, watch, and share originally created videos. (2010 stats: more than 2 billion views a day; 3rd most visited website; over 5 million people have found and subscribed to at least one friend on YouTube; a broad viewer demographic: 18-54 years old.)
Guess who else is getting in the social media game? Walmart. Why? To connect people with information that matters to them.
What pops for me when I consider what YouTube, Walmart, and Instructional Designers have in common is a target demographic: an audience of 18-54 year olds who have a need for information that matters to them, real-time. And, this audience is already getting it and will increasingly prefer, expect, and demand virtual "over-the-partition" learning networks.
Instructional Designers: We cannot wait any longer. Social Media. It’s as simple as that.