Kasey LynchNovember 13, 2023
Topics: Employee Experience

Demystifying Skill Ontologies: Your Roadmap to Clarity

In today’s fast-paced and ever-evolving world, the ability to effectively understand and assess skills and competencies has become a critical component of workforce planning. 

But with “intelligence” terms being tossed around accompanied by ontologies and taxonomies, it can be difficult to understand what it all means, how each relates to one another — let alone how you can get started and leverage technology to improve your day-to-day HR activities. 

One of the most important elements that helps leaders better understand what’s going on in their workforce is a skills ontology. In this blog, we’re going to break down what a skills ontology is, why it’s important, what benefits it provides, and next steps you can take toward unlocking better skills insights at your workplace. 

What is a Skills Ontology? 

A skills ontology is a collection of skills relationships that’s supported by a unified understanding of how strong or weak relationships between skills are. Simply put, this means a skills ontology is a collection of skills with knowledge of how each skill is related to each other within the context of your business. 

For example, a skills ontology can identify accounting as a skill and recommend related proficiencies and skills, such as Excel and data analysis — both of which might have strong relationships to the original accounting skill. 

But, if an employee also cited writing as a skill alongside accounting, the ontology would understand that those two skills do not have a strong correlation to each other. This contextual understanding ensures that a skills ontology draws the right conclusions when pairing groups of skills together. 

For HR in particular, these enriched insights into skills as well as related skills and knowledge of the relationships between skills can start to create a robust understanding of what each individual is capable of without requiring additional manual work to acquire that information. It also allows for a more thorough understanding of what skills are required for each role — creating a detailed skills map that talent acquisition teams can use when identifying potential best-fit candidates for available positions, or managers can use when assessing gaps that might exist on their teams. 

Related: What Every Company Needs to Know About Workforce Intelligence

Now that you have a better understanding of what a skills ontology is, let’s take a look at how it works to categorize skills and roles within an organization. 

The Function of a Skills Ontology 

A skills ontology works in two ways: 1) It determines the skills required for each role within an organization so managers know exactly what skills a candidate should possess to be successful in the role; 2) It assesses the skills existing employees possess, taking the manual work out of skills mapping so leaders can easily identify skills gaps across the business, as well as opportunities for growth and development. 

A skills ontology can understand three specific categories of data relationships: 

  • Skill-to-skill relationships designate how each skill is related to each other and how strongly those skills are related. 

  • Skill-to-role relationships highlight how skills are related to respective roles or job titles. 

  • Role-to-role relationships focus on mapping how each role is related to other roles within an organization. 

A graphic showing how Phenom Skills Ontology can contextually understand skill-to-skill, skill-to-role, and role-to-role relationships within an organization.

However, not all skill ontologies are created to interpret all three relationship categories. Most skill ontologies solely focus on the skill-to-skill relationships or skill-to-role relationships whereas a robust skills ontology can take into account all relationship categories. 

Since most skill ontologies only focus on one or two areas, businesses often have to combine point solutions to first understand the skills data, then implement a tool that helps leaders take action based on that data set. 

For example, a standard HCM solely focuses on skill-to-skill relationships to recommend new skills based on the existing skills that each employee has. 

If a business only invests in a skill ontology platform with skill-to-skill relationships, they still need to designate time and resources to manually go through the skills data and associate it with respective roles. This can be a laborious task and still leaves companies scrambling to make sense of all the data available within a skill ontology. 

At Phenom, we train our skill ontologies to interpret and categorize all three relationships using proprietary platform data that we combine with any available data relevant to your company. This provides you with the necessary components to gain a holistic understanding of your workforce. 

Let’s take a closer look at how this is done.

What Makes Phenom’s Skill Ontology Different?

Since most HCM’s only focus on skill-to-skill relationships, it can be difficult to layer in multiple-point solutions that work together to add more context without adding complexity to your systems.

Even if you use a third-party skills ontology with your HCM to get more insight into skills and roles, you still need to drive that information to the point of engagement with your candidates, employees, recruiters, and managers to make it actionable. 

To enhance the efficiency of skills ontologies while streamlining your experience, our development teams have taken a traditional skill ontology to new heights. 

1. Implementing custom-trained models and proprietary data specifically for HR 

Using custom-trained models and a proprietary set of data that we’ve been collecting for over a decade, our skills ontology takes into account all three relationships to create a deeper understanding of:

  • The skills available within your workforce

  • The skills needed to be successful in each role 

  • The relationships between each skill 

  • Which categories of skills should be attributed to each role

  • How each role is related to other roles 

  • Where skills gaps exist based on existing knowledge

  • What progressions are available to your organization for career pathing 

Our skills ontology, out of the box, has 50-60% of the necessary data to understand skills and role relationships within any organization in any industry. 

2. Adding another layer of context with your unique company data 

The next layer of knowledge comes from your unique company data for specific roles and skill sets that are needed.

To ensure our data is combined with pertinent company data, the Phenom skills ontology pulls relevant: 

  • Employee data 

  • Job titles and descriptions

  • Organizational structures

  • Learning materials 

  • Proficiencies 

This combination of data allows the ontology to delineate similarities and differences between Phenom platform data and your specific company data to identify how closely related these similarities are. Throughout this process, the skill ontology is creating local groupings using critical company context without requiring manual work or data entry since it’s combined on top of out-of-the-box data sets filled with HR-specific data points. 

These additional attributes combined with existing platform data make up 90% of the ontology — accelerating time between implementation and adoption so you can start gaining a better understanding of your workforce faster. 

3. Validating combined skills data 

The next step in this process is focused on validating the available information to ensure that the skill ontology has the most accurate skills, career progressions, and roles in alignment with your existing workforce. We work closely with your talent management team to annotate the information before publishing the skill ontology. If you’re unsure about how all of this comes together differently than a traditional skill ontology or HCM, here’s an analogy that highlights the differences: 

If a career architecture was a destination you had to drive to, point solutions might provide you with an engine without the car or a car without the navigational system. Phenom gives you the engine, the car, the ability to navigate, and things to do when you get to your destination. 

You might be thinking, that sounds great, but how does all of this help create better talent experiences? Let’s dive into the benefits you can experience from implementing a robust skill ontology at your organization. 

Related: Bringing Employee Experiences to Life: How GE Plans, Engages, and Retains with Workforce Intelligence

4 Benefits of Skills Ontologies

Skill ontologies are designed to make parsing skills data simple. They also help support a larger ecosystem of HR tools that drive actionable insights throughout the Phenom platform. 

Pairing insights with action is a winning combination that ensures the skills data that you have access to is distilled into bite sized recommendations that help you get from where you are to where you want to be. 

There are numerous benefits that are directly linked to implementing a robust skills ontology. Let’s take a look at four of them: 

1. Elevated workforce intelligence for data-driven decision-making

Having access to the data is not enough. With workforce intelligence tools, you can access comprehensive datasets while also getting actionable insights and recommendations based on the data itself. This is a critical step that brings skill ontology implementation full circle. 

Out-of-box data combined with company data ensures that the Phenom skills ontology creates a comprehensive understanding of the skills available within your organization. With a universal understanding of skill-to-skill, skill-to-role, and role-to-role relationships, skill ontologies power workforce intelligence insights that help HR leaders get a clear picture of the entire workforce.

This deeper understanding of an organization’s workforce helps leaders make evidence-based policy development as well as strategic planning and forecasting possible since the information available within a skill ontology is up-to-date and captures any changes within the workforce in real time. 

Having access to accurate, comprehensive, and evolving information is critical when leaders are making decisions to drive the direction of the business forward. 

For employees, well-developed skills ontologies help enhance existing skills information while identifying any areas of concern that need to be addressed. Instead of solely relying on employee input related to their skills, skill ontologies apply additional context to employee profiles, creating a robust understanding of their skills, preferences, interests, and expertise. 

This enhanced information drives more relevant career path recommendations across the enterprise to connect individuals with potential career moves that may not have otherwise been considered.

Related: Future-Proofing Your Workforce by Mastering Skill and Competency Gaps

These are just a few of the ways in which skills ontologies create foundations of knowledge that power data-driven decision-making for key stakeholders. 

2. Enhanced education and training 

Understanding what skills are available — paired with visible career pathing journeys for each individual employee — managers can help guide talent development through recommended courses of action. This can include mentorship opportunities, gigs and short-term projects, or coursework aimed at helping employees reach their next career milestone while staying in alignment with greater company goals. 

For example, if leadership sees an opportunity to upskill an employee in preparation for a role that will become available in the future, they can support tailored learning programs in an effort to empower internal mobility while ensuring TA teams can prioritize finding external talent for roles that don’t have a clear succession plan. 

This approach offers improved visibility and collaboration between talent acquisition and talent management departments, effectively promoting efficient resource allocation. 

3. Streamlined workforce planning processes

Skill ontologies go beyond outlining skills available within your organization — they allow for the rapid deployment of career architectures, creating clear paths for your employees to follow so they can thrive within your company, today and in the future. 

By clearly outlining the skills each employee possesses, leadership can strategically bridge skills gaps, ensuring your employees are well-equipped to take on new challenges. This also surfaces any areas that require external talent to fill skill gaps. This level of insight can inform TA teams and empower them to make more targeted hiring efforts that are honed around acquiring specific skills. 

Pairing a targeted approach with the right technology can cut down on sourcing and screening time, allowing TA teams to make more meaningful connections with best-fit candidates, faster. 

4. Delivering better experiences for employees and recruiters

A robust skills ontology unlocks invaluable insights for HR leaders but it also provides value for employees and recruiters. 

For employees, well-developed skills ontologies help enhance existing skills information while identifying any areas of concern that need to be addressed. Instead of solely relying on employee input related to their skills, skill ontologies apply additional context to employee profiles, creating a robust understanding of their skills, preferences, interests, and expertise. 

This enhanced information drives more relevant career path recommendations across the enterprise to connect individuals with potential career moves that may not have otherwise been considered.

For recruiters, skills ontologies highlight critical gaps that need to be addressed alongside skills that recruiters should look for in potential candidates. This informed approach to recruiting offers a more targeted and mindful approach, ensuring that recruiters connect with best-fit candidates that align with the job responsibilities as well as overarching business goals. 

It also expands the talent pool by surfacing potential internal candidates that can be upskilled and promoted into a different role — accelerating time to hire since the candidate is already an employee. 

Overall, a skills ontology helps make more contextualized connections between critical pieces of information, powering more engaging and personalized experiences for users throughout the organization. 

Next Steps for Implementing a Skills Ontology

Skills ontologies are revolutionizing the HR landscape by providing a powerful tool for improved workforce intelligence. To get a better view of your organization’s roles, skills, and progressions, sign up for a personalized Skills Snapshot

Once you fill out the form and meet with our team of experts, you’ll receive a snapshot of your company’s skills, plus tailored recommendations that will help you take the right steps toward becoming a skills-forward organization. 

Not ready for a Skills Snapshot? Download our Workforce Intelligence Guide: A Skills-Based Deployment and Adoption Plan to learn everything you need to know about workforce intelligence. 

Kasey Lynch

Kasey is a content marketing writer, focused on highlighting the importance of positive experiences. She's passionate about SEO strategy, collaboration, and data analytics. In her free time, she enjoys camping, cooking, exercising, and spending time with her loved ones — including her dog, Rocky. 

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