Software company transforming performance reviews around the world; giving HR people 'flash tools'

Software company transforming performance reviews around the world; giving HR people 'flash tools'

By Andrew Patterson

Sonar6 might not be a household name, but in HR circles it’s fast becoming one.

The Auckland based software company has transformed performance reviews much like Trade Me has changed the whole process of selling goods online.

It’s taken a process most people dreaded and made it simple, functional and best of all engaging. Now businesses are lining up to join its customer list.

The large sign that almost stretches the length of its funky Freemans Bay office sums up the company’s mantra very well. At last, performance reviews that don’t suck!

We’ve all been through the routine. You get summonsed to the bosses’ office for the annual performance review – if it happens at all – and for the next hour your performance is painfully scrutinised using a complicated and lengthy form that usually makes root canal treatment suddenly more appealing.

You try to justify your existence over the last year while your boss tries to tell you why you still don’t deserve a pay increase; despite the fact you’ve met all your key performance metrics. You walk out of the meeting disgruntled but comforted by the fact that the torturous process is finally over and you can conveniently forget about HR for another year.

It’s a typical scenario that plays out repeatedly in offices and business not only in this country, but also around the world which led Sonar6 founder Mike Carden to create a software product that would manage the process a whole lot more effectively.

"I too felt I was a victim of poor HR processes. I previously worked for Hewlett Packard which is, of course, a large global business and like all companies of that size they also had a large HR department and each year they would send us performance reviews to complete and it used to feel like the edict of some distant group we only ever used to hear from once a year."

"At the time we were looking to build a new software product and it seemed like a space that was ripe for some disruption.”

However, with a background in artificial intelligence, it didn’t seem to be the most logical space for a computer specialist to be entering given that HR is usually right at the other end of the personality spectrum.

"I was trained originally in computer science, but after leaving university I noticed that all my friends who were in sales and marketing roles seemed to be driving nicer cars and so I ended up spending most of my time in consumer marketing which allowed me to engage with a range of people."


The idea of turning performance reviews into a viable business also seemed to make sense when you considered the proposition.

"When we started looking at this space originally we did the maths and figured out there was probably a billion people in the world who do some kind of annual performance review and I can almost guarantee that the vast majority of them will tell you that they’re completely dissatisfied with the process so that’s what we set out to try and fix. I know when you think about that it might sound a bit dull, but when you do the maths it actually becomes quite exciting."

The founders also quickly worked out that it was easier to take something unappealing and completely rework it than it was to try and focus on some other process that simply required polishing.

"We went out and talked to lots and lots of potential customers and we quickly discovered that most people didn’t think that performance reviews were of any use at all. So if you were a manager or employee the whole process was largely seen as a waste of time, even though the exercise may have been useful to the HR department."

"So instead, what we tried to do was build software that was useful for managers and if you get that process right with the right kind of data model behind it then you can collect the information easily and then roll it up and provide a helicopter view for HR and the management team about what’s happening in their organisation. In the end, we actually found it surprisingly simple to fix."

Image makeover

Sonar6 also discovered along the way that many HR staff also felt like outliers within their organisations, without the flash tools and expensive budgets of their colleagues in marketing.

"What we were really trying to do at the time we started the company was to make HR cool. If you think about it the HR department never usually gets a chance to stand out and be seen to be cool. So we thought that if we could give them the tools and artefacts to sit at management meetings and be able to inform people about what was happening in their organisations from a staffing perspective, then you would begin to build a groundswell."

"What we also discovered as we got into it is that HR itself is a real community. HR people talk to other HR people and in the end that’s how the business was built."

"What also stood out for us was that the software needed to be like the software that everyone uses every day. If you look at typical enterprise software, it’s usually pretty dull. You fill out a form and hit submit and then you have no idea where that form ends up. Whereas, with sites such as Facebook, we’ve been trained to receive instant gratification. If I post something on my wall then I expect someone to reply to it. So essentially what we did was take all those cues from social media and what people are used to and then apply those same principles within our own software."

Sonar6 believes its growth potential is unlimited.

"We’ve just recruited a sales manager for Tel Aviv and there are so many opportunities out there for us."

"Recruiting staff remains one of our biggest issues. It’s just a constant problem finding the right staff."

So if Sonar6 has its way, it’s possible you might actually start to look forward to your performance review in the future, that’s if your employer is prepared to make the switch to a technology based solution first.


Sector: SAS (Software as Service)
Founded: 2006
Staff: 30 (16 international)
Ownership: Private. Purchased by NASDAQ listed
Cornerstone on Demand  (March 2012)
Turnover: Undisclosed
Profitable: Yes
Sales split: domestic / international 25% : 75%
Fastest growing markets: North America, NZ
Annual growth rate: 250%

Sonar6 came 48th on 2011 Deloitte Fast 50. The 2012 Deloitte Fast 50 information is here »

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