Session Producers: Supporting Your Virtual Learning Experiences


Maria Melfa: Welcome everyone to Bring Out The Talent. My name is Maria Melfa, and I am the President and CEO of The Training Associates, otherwise known as TTA.

Jocelyn Allen: Hi everyone, I’m Jocelyn Allen. I’m a Talent Recruitment Manager here today and as usual, we’re so glad to have you back here with us. Back by popular demand, we might have a Director of Learning Solutions in-house.

John Laverdure: Yes, you might. Popular demand, I’m sure. John Laverdure, Director of Learning Solutions here. Great to be back.

Maria Melfa: We’re so excited to have you back with us, John. It’s always a pleasure. But we’re even more excited for our podcast guest today, Pearl Walker from SAE International. Pearl is the Senior Learning Operations and Delivery Manager at SAE International. SAE is a global association committed to advancing mobility, knowledge, and solutions for the benefit of humanity. By engaging nearly two hundred thousand engineers, technical experts, and volunteers, SAE connects and educates mobility professionals to enable safe, clean, and accessible mobility solutions. SAE International acts on two priorities: encouraging a lifetime of learning for mobility engineering professionals and setting the standards for industry engineering. Notably, Pearl manages one of the largest professional learning and development programs in the United States. She is responsible for all aspects of SAE’s global professional development course delivery, scheduling, and logistics of ILT, blended, and synchronous virtual courses. Pearl is also a certified-focus Stephen Covey Instructor. We came to know and love Pearl when SAE found itself needing a new partner to support its virtual deliveries. When Pearl is not working, she enjoys refinishing old furniture that she finds on Facebook Marketplace and fancies herself as a personal home organizer on the side, minus the hearts and rainbows from the home edit. Pearl’s most important role, however, is a doodle mama to her adorable pup, Lambert. Namesake Jack, not Adam. Welcome Pearl. We’re so excited to have you.

Pearl Walker: I’m so excited to be here. Thank you so much for the invitation.

Jocelyn Allen: Now a doodle is like a golden doodle, right? Or a Labrador or what it is. There’s a lot to do. What is yours?

Pearl Walker: Yeah, there are so many kinds of doodles, but Lambert is a golden doodle.

Jocelyn Allen: A golden?

Pearl Walker: Yes, he is. A half golden retriever and half poodle. And he tips the scale at ninety-two pounds,

Jocelyn Allen: The baby.

Pearl Walker: Yeah, he’s a big baby.

Jocelyn Allen: I love him already.

Maria Melfa: They’re the best they really are.

Jocelyn Allen: Give Lambert a scratch for me.

John Laverdure: Let’s just do this episode on dogs.

Jocelyn Allen: Yeah, right? That’s actually where we’re going, Pearl, is dogs.

Maria Melfa: Tell us how you decided to be part of SAE International.

Pearl Walker: Absolutely. So, I was actually recruited through an agency back in 2016. The professional development team here was in search of a candidate that had a combination of training, L&D experience, as well as operations, expertise, and a familiarity with nonprofit management, which proved to be a pretty difficult combination of skills to find. But luckily, my passion for lifelong learning and my crazy career path just happened to be a perfect fit. So, I had cut my teeth in an extensive career with McDonald’s USA, based out of Oak Brook, Illinois, and spent 13 years with McDonald’s as a training consultant, a field service consultant, and an operations consultant, developing restaurant managers, working with franchise owners, and then finally spending time in some corporate restaurants, working through some of the issues that we had there. And then the next chapter of my life afforded me to take a role as an executive director for our local symphony orchestra. So crazy career path change. But after that, you know, a 20-year kind of look into all of those things, all firmly rooted right in ED and training operations, nonprofit management. Suddenly, it all made sense. So, I ended up accepting the role here at City International.

Jocelyn Allen: What a great journey, and what a cool story. You’re right. I mean, the local symphony bringing you to international training. You know, provider, it’s a cool journey that you’ve had. Can you tell us a little bit more about SAE and the training that you do offer?

Pearl Walker: Yeah, absolutely. I’d be delighted to. We’re actually the global leader in technical learning for the mobility industry. We offer hundreds of ILT, VILT, and On-Demand courses that support the growth of mobility engineers globally. Our portfolio consists of about roughly three hundred and five or so seminars in nine different technical interest areas across aerospace, automotive, and commercial vehicle industries. So, we probably have over two hundred and fifty instructors currently on our roster, and the majority of our courses are also approved by IACET, which is the International Association for Continuing Education and Training. So, what all of that means, in a nutshell, is that professional engineers come to us for upskilling, new skilling, certification, adherence to their, you know, professional engineering hours that are required, and then we’re also accredited by ACTAR, which is the Accident Recon Community of folks out in the U.S.

Maria Melfa: Well, I know John will know how the relationship began between TTA and SAE, but why don’t you let others know?

Jocelyn Allen: We can’t let John have all the fun.

John Laverdure: Never. Trust me.

Pearl Walker: Well, it was a let’s just say it was a whirlwind trip to the altar, right? So, we dated briefly, and then ran right down the aisle and ended up in a partnership with TTA and it happened during the very strange year of 2020. We had for several years utilized a firm in Chicago that we sourced all of our technical classroom space globally. We had a rock-solid partnership with them, and pre-pandemic were running about 600 open enrollment seminars in these spaces all over the world per year. So, I won’t ever forget this day. It was July 1st, 2020. I sound dramatic. I don’t mean to. But the vice president of the firm called to let us know that due to financial implications of COVID-19 and the pandemic, the company was closing its doors immediately.

Maria Melfa: Wow.

Pearl Walker: So, knowing that we were managing the shift and delivery modality, I had a few months under my belt knowing that we were shifting out of the classroom and into the virtual learning environment more and more as we went along. Our account manager then reached out directly to introduce me to John. So, we were engaged for about three days. I joke, but that is directly in response to what I refer to as the “PTSD of 2020.” It was a dramatic paradigm shift of epic proportion that we were not prepared for. For our department, it wasn’t how we had conducted business. We had a small web seminar portfolio that we had delivered for many, many years, but we had never done all of our courses that were designed to be ILT in that format. So, it changed everything. The way we conducted business, the way we delivered training, and the work that it took to get done. So, I joke, but it was a quick relationship.

John Laverdure: So certainly 2020 was a huge pivot for everyone. And I know you made that dramatic shift to virtual, but can you tell us a little bit more about what you experienced and all that?

Pearl Walker: Pre 2020? Our product mix was really, you know, seventy-five percent ILT, twenty-five percent VILT and On-Demand. Currently, we’re hosting a limited number of in-person seminars as the majority of our offerings now are being delivered virtually. We have a set of seminars in our portfolio that are highly experiential learning that can only occur at locations, such as we run classes at the BMW Performance Centers in California and South Carolina. We have some sites in California, in Oxnard that we do some work, and then we also work with the Van Damme Proving Grounds in Marquette, Michigan. Those obviously can’t be done because we’ve got people in cars and running around the tracks and doing activities that are not able to be accomplished virtually.

John Laverdure: The session producer role is a role that. I mean, it’s been around for a while, but it’s certainly grown dramatically over the past year or two, and curious about your take on the role? Like, what has it done to impact your training program?

Pearl Walker: So virtual session production is really, you know, it’s the planning, the setup, the session management, follow-up of all the logistical and technical details that are required for a VILT. Our instructors at SAE encountered a new and very real challenge of simultaneously delivering the content and teaching the learners while navigating the technology. As the majority of our courses are really highly technical in nature, navigating, you know, placing people in breakout rooms, managing attendance, assisting with technical issues, and kind of managing the session, you know, became a distraction to the content and the meaning. So, the value for us is real. It’s a perfect partnership between what we refer to as the subject matter expert and your “logistical ninjas” that make everything the highest-quality learning experience that it can be.

Jocelyn Allen: We’d love to hear more about “logistical ninjas” and the “ninja thing” that we’ve been doing together because, obviously, we value the partnership with you because this helped us catapult session producing, and what our network looks like in relation to that, and providing other clients a better solution when it comes to training delivery. How has TTA helped you manage those logistics associated with a global high volume offering I know our project management team has worked endlessly to make this a quick turnaround for you given the circumstances. So, I’d love to hear from your perspective what we brought to the table that helped you manage this?

Pearl Walker: SAE International is actually the only accredited training provider for a program that is known as Common Training for DPRV personnel. In the aerospace industry, the delegated product release occurs when a supplier is given the authority to act on behalf of the delegating organization to verify and release products without any additional oversight. So historically, each delegating organization conducted its own unique training program for individuals over all of these different folks. In 2015, the Aerospace Engine Supplier Quality Group, which is a committee known as the AESQ, worked with SAE to consolidate that training into a single common training program. So, in addition to participating in this three-day training, attendees must and have to pass a comprehensive learning assessment. This particular program is forty-three percent of our product mix. So, when you talk about your logistics team, and what they have done to help us navigate these waters, we offered. This particular program is offered in nine languages. It is global, delivered throughout the world, and for each of those eight languages, a fluent, native, virtual session producer who speaks that language was needed. There are weeks that we hold six to eight of these all over the world.

Pearl Walker: So meaning, we have, you know, maybe 15 seminars a week, but six to eight of them are this particular high-volume program. Each one of those is in a different language, and all of that happens concurrently. So back to the “ninja” comment. So, we were assigned a crack-support manager in Nikki. She works tirelessly with my team to ensure that none of this falls apart. She took time to listen, learn, understand what we needed. adjust with the shifts and policies, procedures, recruit highly trained producers, and somehow every day, get us people that natively speak each language that we require. And I don’t know how she does it. Honestly, I don’t. But every day she makes it happen, and no matter what changes we throw at her, she manages the project and navigates all of that accordingly. And we have not had one program in over a year where we could not deliver what we needed to for this required program for the Aerospace Engineering Community.

Maria Melfa: That’s wonderful to hear.

Jocelyn Allen: Well, I love our framework. Our teamwork’s the dream work.

Maria Melfa: Shout out to Nikki. So excellent job.

Jocelyn Allen: Amazing job, Nikki.

Pearl Walker: She’s amazing.

Maria Melfa: So how many countries is she supporting?

Pearl Walker: Eight languages, 31 countries, give or take a few. It’s a lot, but I also have a very, very amazing team that supports me. So, there’s a group of operations associates all over the country. So, they don’t all work here where I am, but they are all over the country, and they work tirelessly with your team to deliver all of these programs there. It’s an amazing marriage. You know, I couldn’t be happier with how things have happened, and in the way that it’s working. So, we were able to serve the same number of learners this year that we did two years ago, but most of that has shifted to virtual delivery versus in-person delivery globally. And that’s really a direct correlation to what Nikki and your team of producers do to support my operations team that runs all of these programs.

Maria Melfa: So just to back up a little bit for the listeners that are with us today, can you talk about some of the different functions that these session producers perform for the organization because people, you know because that is a relatively new term in the last couple of years?

Pearl Walker: The session producers themselves manage the coaching and instruction of the instructor’s delivery model. So, helping each of the instructors kind of focus on the subject matter, deliver the course content without that anxiety of worrying about: “Is everyone in the room?” Is there audio connected? Can they see the videos that are playing within Zoom? Navigating all of the attendance and requirements that we have for attendance in terms of our asset accreditation? The producer handles all of that for our students and our instructors.

Maria Melfa: I think a lot of customers were not aware of how important that role was, because when you do have a trainer who is teaching a large virtual audience, it can get them off track often if they’re dealing with chats and different questions and breakout rooms or obviously technical issues. So, it really is an important function, and not only have we seen a lot of increased demand from your organization, but from a lot of other companies on this.

Jocelyn Allen: And when they’re introduced to what that role is as part of their training program, the kind of “aha” moment of, “Oh yes, we’d like one of those, too.” That’ll make things easier, right? And again, Pearl, we have a large “thank you” to you and SAE for that because this program introduced us to what this type of a role can bring to organizations and their training programs. Now you’re doing a lot of sessions, as you said. Lots of different countries. We do have a great partnership with Nikki and Project Management and our network, along with you in your operations team. But what is the schedule look like for that? Like how is that managed? And you know, is there what part does each party play in that, I guess?

Pearl Walker: Yeah, so are things that come from a variety of resources. The team at TTA crafted a solution for us pretty quickly and efficiently by listening to our needs and placing the dedicated client manager as our partner. So, giving us Nikki right upfront. As you can imagine, or the listeners can probably imagine, with the portfolio, as vast of that as SAE, our offerings change often. And what we haven’t really spoken about yet is that, not only do we have like your standard open enrollment schedule that holds, but we also have a sales team that offers private corporate learning engagements to any client globally. So, these can be booked daily with a turnaround time of three weeks or less. So, it did not take the TTA team long at all to realize that we needed a real-time solution to manage that volume. We tried spreadsheets. I think what was it, John? I think we made it a week and a half or two weeks, possibly before.  Spreadsheets through Teams and SharePoint, and we quickly realized that you know, that volume that we do, and the change management process of it was too much to manage in that matter. So amazingly, your I.T. team at the time. I think his name was Mike if I’m remembering correctly. Mike took off, you know, in several conversations with myself, Nikki, some of the challenges that we were having with, you know, kind of how to work together. Your team went to work and developed a full-on, you know, I.T. solution, which was a scheduling portal that allows us to utilize our learning management system and our training management system to run reports that talk to your portal. And then in that portal, TTA then assigns the producer with the skill sets needed for each of the particular seminars, language, logistics, et cetera. And then somehow, magically, it all talks, and it comes back, and we put all of that information back into our LMS. And it’s as beautiful as you can imagine.

John Laverdure: Yeah. When we have these, these really kind of high volume, complex type of projects or programs, I mean, it’s really all about innovation and efficiency, and I love that about the IT team here. You know, as much as they’re handling infrastructure for TTA, they’re equally client-focused and willing to jump in and really optimize things. So that was a very cool, quick turnaround project that had some great results.

Maria Melfa: John’s famous for grabbing the IT department last minute. “Hey, I have a client that needs this.” “Hey, I need you for this.” “Hey.”

Jocelyn Allen: Also marrying people in three weeks. No, I’m just kidding.

Maria Melfa: Yeah, a few years ago. “Hey, I need three or four of our I.T. people for several months.” So.

Pearl Walker: I have zero complaints. It worked, and.

Maria Melfa: No, no, absolutely.

John Laverdure: See. This is what happens.

Maria Melfa: No, we’re very, we’re very glad, we’re very glad that it helped it. It’s funny. John keeps us on our toes.

John Laverdure: Yeah, it wouldn’t be fun otherwise.

Jocelyn Allen: Yeah, absolutely. I just love that this is a project that like if you just kind of look at it at a glimpse can seem relatively simple, right? At least like what we’re doing here, right? But like the overarching factor is, is that this was the result of a major pivot that your entire organization needed to make, and something needed to be, then created, in order for that to happen, both in the form of session producers and aligning languages and capabilities and logistics. And then the scheduling piece on top of it. It’s just we’ve all learned so much together about what our own capabilities are, in order to provide the best business solutions. And I get a special feeling when I think about how much we’ve grown from it. So, I love this conversation and hearing how we’ve evolved together overall, SAE and TTA, it’s really fun.

Maria Melfa: So speaking of evolving, how do you envision SAE’s training evolving in the upcoming years

Pearl Walker: In the last 18 months, everything that I knew about managing a training organization was flipped upside down. I, never in a million years, did I ever think that I wouldn’t be, you know, sourcing hotels, booking, catering, managing onsite events. Eight top rounds versus 10 top rounds, like that, was my life. I planned corporate weddings, is what I’ve always called them, but I planned corporate weddings forever. And then, all of the sudden, it was all different. I think that we’ll have a steady diet of virtual learning for years to come in, honestly, every industry. I don’t want to answer this just based on the mobility industry. I think it’s everyone. I think that there is a flexibility and a component to virtual learning that is very different from that of classroom learning and that employers and learners alike are developing a more refined palate for it. There will always be learning, right, that has to be done in-person, on the track, under the hood of a vehicle, you know, in front of a grill teaching someone how to make food, that learning has to occur in the environment,

Pearl Walker: But there will also be learning that can be done in chunks of, you know, microlearning modules that are developed that possibly culminate into a larger cohort project. And then, you know, there’s the capability of a high-flux classroom, which John and I haven’t even talked about yet. But what does that look like? “Call me later, salesman.” You know, but there’s that whole piece that, you know, hybrid high-flex delivery, where maybe I have an instructor in, you know, our automotive headquarters in Troy, Michigan, but I’ve got a cohort in India that want to take the robotics program. How do I make that happen? I think the future of learning all around is mobile. I think that we are going to be moving and adjusting and navigating for years to come because people are asking for things to be done differently. And I think virtual learning session production, hybrid, high flex, that’s all going to come together in pieces and parts, or little chunks of information that eventually make up a full learning product for the learner, the consumer.

John Laverdure: That’s a great point. You know, as you say, that the transition to virtual was really out of necessity, right? But I think the maintenance of that modality is going to be largely from desire moving forward.

Pearl Walker: Agreed. And I think it’s it covers all industries. I think that no matter what we’re delivering, it has to be professional. It needs to be polished. It has to have that person who’s, you know, managing the session to allow the subject matter experts to do what they do best and no matter what modality we’re delivering in.

John Laverdure: So Pearl, I just want to thank you for your partnership. It’s been amazing ever since I said, “I do”, and

Pearl Walker: And I’m so glad you did.

John Laverdure: No, we really do appreciate the partnership. Nikki’s always saying the most amazing things. I try to keep a really close pulse on everything, and I love our strategic talks, our banter, and all of the above. So, thank you. Thank you very, very much for all of that.

Pearl Walker: No, it’s absolutely my pleasure. As I said, we literally cannot do what we do without you. The partnership is twofold in the appreciation, and gratefulness goes both ways.

Maria Melfa: Thank you so much, Pearl. This is absolutely fantastic to hear how well the program has done and how quickly you are able to pivot. We really appreciate your business, and I think this is a great discussion for those out there that still are trying to figure out how they can best support their virtual delivery programs. So, thank you very much.

Pearl Walker: Absolutely. My pleasure. I think everyone’s trying to figure it out in a different way. And I, you know, no matter the industry, learning and development has really shifted. So, anything that our story today can help anyone else figure that out, I think, is the criticality of it. So, thank you for having me. Thank you for asking about our story, talking with me, and working with me to develop a solution to keep moving forward.

Maria Melfa: Thank you so much, Pearl.

Jocelyn Allen: For more information on today’s podcast guests and how they can help your organization, please visit www.thetrainingassociates.com.

Maria Melfa: Bring Out The Talent is a MuddHouse Media Production.