What Is a Skills Ontology Framework & Do You Need One?

What Is a Skills Ontology Framework & Do You Need One?

Building critical skills and competencies is a core focus for companies around the globe. This is what a Gartner survey reported back in 2022, but it’s as true today as it was then.

The way we work is constantly shifting and changing, as are business needs and goals. Naturally, the required skills to meet those needs are evolving as well. Businesses recognise that a structured approach is necessary to identify skills within their workforce, and where gaps may lie.

In this article, we look at one such framework — skills ontologies — and how they compare to alternatives like taxonomies or a skills matrix. We explore the benefits of putting a skills ontology in place, and how you can go about the process.

What Is a Skills Ontology?

A skills ontology is a structured framework for understanding skill relationships. This helps businesses recognise role-specific proficiencies and identify skill gaps. It’s a business version of metaphysical ontology, focusing on how skills relate to each other and assessing talent needs and development.

Businesses use skills ontologies to organise and categorise abilities, creating a skills map that ensures employees develop the right competencies. This encourages continuous professional growth and a culture of lifelong learning.

Skills ontologies also see businesses allocating employees to roles where their skills fit best. This boosts job satisfaction and reduces the need for talent acquisition.

an example of a skills taxonomy vs skills ontology

Skills Ontology vs Taxonomy vs Skills Matrix: What Is the Difference?

The terms skills ontology, skills taxonomy, and skills matrix may sound similar, but they each serve distinct purposes in understanding, organising, and managing expertise.

A skills ontology categorises skills alongside their relationships to others. Unlike hierarchies, ontologies are flexible and adaptable, accommodating new skills and roles without your needing to assign them to a class. This makes it easier to see the ways that abilities intersect, and how roles within your business can be developed and expanded.

A skills taxonomy is a hierarchical list of proficiencies. For instance, in Programming, subcategories like ‘Programming Languages’ and ‘Web Development’ would be listed, each with relevant skills.

HTML, for example, would be categorised under web development. However, a skills taxonomy wouldn’t show HTML’s connection to other programming languages. It’s purely a list without related connections.

Skill ontologies and taxonomies help define required skill sets. A skills matrix visualises your skills map and compares it to your workforce’s abilities. It lists required skills alongside employees in a table and helps you to document their talents, skill gaps and development. Want to see one in action? Download our free skills matrix template.

Each tool — taxonomy, matrix, and ontology — has its place. A taxonomy outlines skills rigidly, while a matrix helps to visualise them for team development. An ontology provides a deep understanding of role requirements.

a man conducting a virtual interview. a skills ontology can help you find the right talent

10 Benefits That Skills Ontologies Provide

Creating a skill ontology for your business can be a lengthy process. However, there are plenty of rewards to be gained from making the effort.

1. Better Understanding of Role Requirements

Often management knows that a role needs to be filled, but they don’t understand what the position entails. Skills ontologies can aid in outlining job responsibilities and highlight a position’s importance and value to the company.

2. Finding the Right Talent

A thorough understanding of the skills you need for specific roles will make job acquisition significantly easier. You will know exactly what you’re looking for to fill the gaps in your team’s makeup, and can use that knowledge to create compelling job descriptions that will see the right talent coming to you.

3. Recognising Existing Skills Within Your Business

Often businesses will hire individuals for a particular role, without realising that they have other skills that would be useful to their operations. By putting together a detailed skills ontology, you’ll have the opportunity to understand the skills you already have within your workforce. This can help you to allocate talent to the correct departments, rather than focusing on hiring new employees.

4. Identifying And Addressing Skill Gaps

By creating a skills framework, you’ll more easily be able to pinpoint areas where your teams could improve. It will allow you to identify critical skills that need to be developed. You can then focus on either furthering them in-house through training or finding new hires to fill skills gaps.

5. Nurturing Professional Development

The importance of continuous assessment in future-proofing your business cannot be overstated. The business world is developing at such a rapid pace that it’s critical for your teams to expand their knowledge bases and workforce skills. A skills ontology will help you recognise areas for employee development and improvement, which will in turn see your teams focused on workplace learning and growth.

6. Enhancing Company Culture

People want to feel fulfilled in their roles. Companies that provide growth opportunities and recognise skills and achievements become better employers. They build the kind of company culture that sees their workforce committed to personal development as well as the growth of the company as a whole. They will also be far less likely to look elsewhere for work if they feel happy and fulfilled in their existing job.

7. Actionable Insights

Skills taxonomies list abilities under categories, but it can be difficult to know what to do with that information. A skills ontology helps businesses recognise the relationships between skills and understand where they can be developed. Using the example from earlier, a skill taxonomy may highlight that you need a Javascript developer. Skill ontologies can show that an existing employee with a high HTML proficiency can be upskilled to learn JavaScipt, PHP and other programming languages.

8. Enhanced Skills Assessment

A skills ontology creates a framework that you can use to enhance your skill assessments. From one perspective, it gives you guidelines to focus your questions and make them more relevant for particular skills. It also allows you to incorporate practical, on-the-job training into your assessments, giving your employees opportunities to showcase real-world skills, rather than just focusing on memorising questions and answers.

9. Engaged Training and Skill Development

Having a skills ontology creates opportunities to expand and personalise learning paths, which in turn leads to more engaged training. Using AI in particular will help you to easily tailor learning to address each individual’s knowledge gaps, rather than having a static structure for all assessments.

10. Improved Talent Management

A person may be a good fit for the role that they’re in. However, with strategic workforce planning you can see them develop their existing skills and learn new ones. This could make them an even better fit for their existing role, or see them fill another need for your business. The ability to pinpoint existing workforce capabilities, and where new workforce skills can be developed, will allow for improved and streamlined talent management.

woman creating mindmap of ideas and concepts as would be done in a skills ontology

Core Components And Key Attributes of a Skills Ontology Framework

When developing skills ontologies, some key features and areas should always be considered and included.

Structuring of Skills

While skill ontologies can be hierarchical in nature, often they are a lot more flexible in their structuring of skills. The focus in a skill ontology is more on the relationships between different skills, rather than classifying them according to their importance. This makes it easier for them to adapt and evolve, incorporating new skills over time and associating them according to their relationships even across multiple categories.

It will be critical for your business to consider how you would like your skill ontology to be structured. This will ensure that it remains flexible, scalable and relevant to your operations for as long as possible without needing to be reevaluated in its entirety.

Mapping Skill Relationships

A critical component of skills ontologies is the skills map or skills cloud that they develop. It is what separates them from similar concepts like skills taxonomies and matrices. Tracking expertise and understanding how skills relate to each other, to specific roles, and to your operations is crucial to developing talent across your entire workforce.

Skill Levels and Proficiencies

Where a skills ontology and a skills matrix meet is with the ability to track skill development and identify areas of improvement. The two come together to see businesses implementing effective workforce planning. They can help you to recognise necessary skills, conduct thorough skill assessments, close skills gaps, and ensure continual learning and development.

Integration with HR Technologies

A new system or process is only effective when it integrates well into the tools and technologies that you already use. A key attribute to consider when implementing skills ontologies is to ensure that your talent and HR teams can incorporate it into their workflows. Thankfully, plenty of learning management systems (LMS) for corporate training facilitate this integration.

Compatibility with Industry Standards

Another component that makes a skills ontology easy to implement is that it uses commonly accepted data formats. This makes it easy to share the information that you get from a skills ontology with relevant stakeholders in an easily recognisable way.

a team working together on a mindmap showing the importance of getting input from stakeholders during a skills ontology

How to Build a Skills Ontology Framework

It’s important to take a strategic approach to building a skills ontology framework. This ensures that the efforts at the outset will pave the way for your future success.

1. Define the Scope and Purpose

From the start, it’s important to understand why you’re undertaking the effort of building a skills ontology. The process can be time-consuming and expensive. Keep in mind what you want to accomplish. This will help you to make the right decisions along the way, reduce expenditure, and see you getting maximum value for your efforts.

2. Find the Right Skills Ontology Technology

A wide range of skills ontology software is available to help you on your journey. Platforms like Protégé provide a user-friendly interface for creating, editing, and managing ontologies, and include features to visualise skill sets and offer reasoning support. A platform like Cloud Assess, which acts as a Talent Management System (TMS) and a Learning Management System (LMS) will help with both employee management and skill development. This will see you taking the insights from your skills ontology and putting them into action.

3. Get Input From Stakeholders

Talk to owners, investors, and managers. Most importantly, speak to your teams on the ground. Learn from them what the critical skills are in your business. This will give you a starting point for developing a skills ontology that is effective and meaningful, rather than simply gathering skill data for academic purposes.

4. Conceptualise the Structure

A skills ontology can be hierarchical but it doesn’t have to be. This is when you start to build out the basics of what your skills map or skills cloud will look like. Based on the input you received from stakeholders, you can start categorising the skills in your business into broad topics.

5. Identify Skill Relationships

The way skills connect to each other is likely unique to your business. It will depend on the specialities you value and the roles associated with them. It will help you understand the relationships between skills, how they apply to different (and multiple) jobs, and how they connect to your overall business needs.

6. Capture Skill Attributes

It’s also important to consider the attributes you want to measure when developing skills. Think of these as the columns that you’ll track in your skills matrix. You may want to consider proficiency, knowledge levels, and years of experience, for example.

7. Integrate with Existing Systems

Once you have developed your skills ontology, you need to maximise its effectiveness. This will involve incorporating it into the technologies that you’re already using to ensure that the data is being used company-wide. From there, it can contribute towards your learning, skill development and hiring processes.

8. Regular Revision and Maintenance

One of the best attributes of skill ontologies is their adaptability. Regularly revisiting your skills cloud will help you to take advantage of an ontology’s flexible nature. As your business grows and your needs evolve, so will the skills required from your workforce and their relationships to roles and operations.

five team members communicating while looking at a laptop indicating the importance of communication skills

Challenges and Considerations When Implementing Skills Ontologies

When putting together skills ontologies for the first time, there are common mistakes that many businesses make. Keeping these in mind will help to make the process as smooth as possible.

  • Only focusing on one of the three areas of a skills ontology. Remember, an effective ontology will give you insight into skill relationships, how they relate to roles, and how roles relate to each other. Each of these areas is just as important for gaining detailed skills insights.
  • Not keeping them up to date. An outdated skill ontology is little help to a business. You want to ensure that you regularly revisit and revise your ontology for effective skill and talent management.
  • Overlooking soft skills. It can be easy for businesses to focus on the hard skills directly related to roles. However, developing soft skills can be just as important. Conflict resolution and communication skills are critical assets for employee satisfaction and personal development. If you’re looking for free soft skill courses to help your teams thrive, start with our course listicle.
  • Not using the right software. There are a lot of options available for skills ontology software. However, not every solution will be the right fit for your business. Make sure you’re keeping factors like integrations and intuitive user interfaces in mind when choosing your software.
  • Ignoring AI. Artificial intelligence may seem like a buzzword, but it’s not going away any time soon. AI-driven skill ontology management will save you time, money, and likely a good deal of frustration.

With multiple global industries experiencing jobs crises due to skills shortages, the future of skills ontologies is bright. They help businesses to leverage tools like AI, which are gaining prominence, to enhance their workforce capabilities, and focus on talent development. This adds to the strategic value an ontology framework offers in tracking existing skills, addressing skills gaps, and ensuring that operational needs are being met.

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