Lifelong learning has gone from a nice to have to an essential building block of a dynamic career. At the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, that means positioning Darden Executive Education & Lifelong Learning (EELL) for the future of work — a future in which frequent career changes and technological advancement will require both continuous upskilling and a renewed commitment to uniquely human skills such as leadership, ethics, negotiation and teamwork.

“Lifelong learning used to be about enrichment; now it’s about advancement,” said Anne Trumbore, executive director of digital initiatives for EELL. “It is something you need to do in order to advance your career and to remain employable.”

A Darden alumni survey conducted by Hanover Research reveals an appetite for developing cutting-edge skills, with the highest percentage of respondents expressing interest in developing data science and analytics skills, followed by more traditional — although no less important — skills like leadership, strategy and people management.

Marketplace demands are clearly visible in the titles of course launched in recent months, with Darden hallmarks such as ethics, leadership and negotiation complemented by courses such as Managing Information for AnalyticsStrategic Use of Data and Strategic Data Analytics for Competitive Advantage.

While EELL has long sought to meet the needs of marketplace via its suite of open and custom courses, with clients ranging from Fortune 500 companies to government agencies such as NASA and branches of the U.S. military and federal government, a strategic shift to ensure a future-ready approach to programming and delivery was catalyzed by events both planned and unexpected.

EELL received the resources to help fortify its leading role in lifelong learning from the largest single gift in Darden history. The gift from Frank M. Sands Sr. (MBA ’63) enabled the launch of the Marjorie R. and Frank M. Sands Institute for Lifelong Learning, which seeks to expand Darden strengths in the delivery of transformational lifelong learning experiences — both in-person and virtually, particularly in new programs for working professionals.

Those efforts were well underway when the coronavirus pandemic struck, forcing a pivot to expanded virtual offerings on an expedited timeline.

“COVID has shown us that adaptations, changes and pressures for innovation in the way we work and how we work are only being accelerated,” said Ashley Williams, CEO and chief learning officer of EELL at the Darden School and leader of the Sands Institute. “Executive education and lifelong learning programs like those we offer will be among the programs growth-minded leaders rely on to reskill in the face of perpetual change and the dislocation brought about by rapid technological advancement and the changing nature of work.”

The Reskilling Revolution

According to the World Economic Forum, almost one-third of all jobs are likely to be transformed by technology by 2030. The jobs of tomorrow will include newly created jobs in what the organization terms “wholly new occupations,” but many will be in existing lines of work undergoing significant transformation. Each will require a development of specific skillsets, often with technological skills accompanied by “core business skills.”

While advanced data and analytics capabilities will be key to many jobs, so will what the WEF called the “specialized skills for how [people] interact with each other,” namely creativity, collaboration and interpersonal dynamics, as well as skills related to specialized sales, human resources, care and education roles.

A number of major employers, notably tech and consulting giants, among others, have also invested heavily in promoting their continuous professional development capabilities. PwC’s 2020 Annual Global CEO survey says 80 percent of CEOs believe “the need for new skills” is their biggest business challenge.

Another way to consider the trends, and one central to the role Darden EELL intends to be a key part of the so-called reskilling revolution: In the face of a rapidly changing and unpredictable future, success is less about what one knows, and more about how one adapts and learns.

Danaher Corp., a Fortune 500 global conglomerate with a number of longstanding ties to Darden, is among the companies with a custom-built Executive Education and Lifelong Learning course that seeks, in part, to strengthen its employees ability to adapt and learn. The company, which has a famously strong internal corporate culture codified in its Danaher Business System, uses courses devised with Darden to teach their leaders to learn new concepts and take portions of the curriculum back to their colleagues to extend the learning to the whole organization.

“For us, lifelong learning has never been more important,” said Justin Holland, senior director at Danaher, who helped craft a custom course for Danaher associates. “Among the reasons for that is the rate of change. We not only need to learn faster than our competitors, we also need to sometimes unlearn faster than our competitors. Many of our associates have a genuine curiosity, one that needs to be fed long after they received their last degree.”

Through a custom-built course using both in-person and virtual elements, the company is able to focus on meaningful experiences that can influence the workplace immediately — or be retooled as needed on short notice.

“The thing we’re most excited about is the potential for people to apply these concepts and tools to things that matter — things that matter to our customers, to our shareholders and to our associates,” said Holland. “Activating these ideas is what we’re most excited about. That activation has always been the Holy Grail in this learning and development space.”

A Blueprint for Virtual Expansion

The imperative to help more organizations and individual learners navigate the workplace of the future, along with the resources of the Sands Institute and the realities of COVID-19, have spurred Darden to act quickly to ensure delivery methods and programming meet the needs of the marketplace.

In practice, executing on the vision, particularly against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, has meant putting greater priority on access to, and outcomes of, lifelong learning programming, while enhancing the elements of the education experience that have brought the School renown.

“It’s not just about transformational learning experiences, it’s about transformational learning outcomes,” said Trumbore, who previously established and launched Wharton Online after working as an early stage employee at Coursera, NovoEd and Stanford’s Online High School. “There is a tremendous opportunity to make ourselves known in this space because there is no longer a geographic monopoly. We may be based in Virginia, but we’re now just as accessible as everyone else.”

In July, the organization shifted a significant portion of its portfolio of programs, including courses such as Leading Virtual Teams Through Disruption and Strategic Data Analytics for Competitive Advantage to a flexible, virtual model and launched a new specialization in future-ready leadership.

Even as EELL continues to substantially invest in growing and perfecting the in-person instructional experience, the pivot has proven to be a successful blueprint for continued virtual expansion, in part due to the care and attention of Darden faculty.

“Darden faculty members are used to putting the learner in the center of everything they do, and now the learner is at home, so they put all of their energies into providing the best virtual experiences that they can,” said Trumbore. “Instead of serving a couple dozen participants, we were suddenly able to serve 100 participants virtually, and folks were absorbing all of the lessons that they would in-person, online.”

While necessity expedited the recent emphasis on a virtual focus, there’s no reason to expect a retreat from the space in a post-pandemic world, and indeed, in many instances virtual and in-person experiences may complement each other.

Danaher’s Holland, for one, said the onset of the crisis has changed the way the company considered the role of virtual instruction.

“We had a previously held conventional wisdom that, for senior leaders anyway, there was no replicating in-person experience,” said Holland, who previously helped lead global leadership develop efforts at GE.  “Although it’s still early days, I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the way we were doing things. Whether it’s asynchronous components that are done in a self-directed way, or coming together in a virtual forum to discuss how it can all be blended with on-the-job application in in-person settings, I suspect that our programs will involve a real blend of these delivery mechanisms going forward.”

Silver Linings of Virtual

Not only has a new generation learned to learn online, Trumbore says, many actually prefer it.

There can be real reticence to engage in sensitive topics — think ethics, leadership challenges, and diversity and inclusion issues — in a live, public setting.

“Virtual can be more inclusive in a way,” said Trumbore. “No one feels like they don’t belong, and that’s one aspect of this that’s so exciting.”

There’s also the reality that the reach of virtual greatly expands Darden’s potential ability to meet the needs of a workforce that may need regular, episodic instruction for career advancement and organizational relevance.

An inclusive, increasingly virtual approach that reaches a wider audience than Darden EELL’s historical model, coupled with courses and content that teach both technical prowess and the human skills needed to thrive in the future, will be key to driving lifelong learning outcomes and reaching the full potential of the Sands Institute.

“Lots of places can stand up a center for lifelong learning. That’s the easy part,” said Trumbore. “But how do you do it in a way that creates meaningful, participant-centered programs? And how do you do it in a way that effectively brings together the best of what different delivery mechanisms can offer? That’s what we’re striving for, but we also have to do that in order to win in the marketplace.”

Darden Executive Education & Lifelong Learning recently announced a number of new programs for 2021, including the Foundations of Data Science for Business Leaders program series.

This post is a reprint of an article that appeared on The Darden Report news site.

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