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Definitive Guide to Planning a SharePoint Migration

Clients often ask me how to get the most business value out of SharePoint migrations. This topic is near and dear to my heart and I speak about it often at various SharePoint events, most recently at the SPFest in Seattle and SharePoint Saturdays in Calgary, and Toronto. If you’re considering a SharePoint upgrade or a SharePoint migration, this guide is for you. I’ve put it together to help you fully realize the potential that’s hiding in your intranet. In it, you’ll learn how to plan for a migration to maximize the opportunities from modernizing your SharePoint environment.

Why is Migrating SharePoint so important?

SharePoint Online (part of the Office 365 family of applications) has been for around 8 years. It launched globally on June 28th, 2011, and almost a decade later it is certainly a success story for Microsoft. Over that time, many organizations bit the bullet and migrated their corporate intranets to SharePoint Online. Others had good reasons for staying on-premises and kept their existing SharePoint environment away from the cloud. But with ageing intranets and end of extended support in sight (SharePoint 2010 end of life is coming in October 2020), those organizations have been reconsidering their options: upgrading to SharePoint 2019 on-premises or migrating to SharePoint Online. No matter which route you take, one thing is certain – you’re about to embark on a SharePoint migration.

While this might sound overwhelming at first, but don’t worry. This is a chance to go beyond just a lift-and-shift and modernize the way your organization works. If your organization is still using older versions of SharePoint, it’s structure likely needs an overhaul. That’s because the way we worked 5-10 years ago is quite different than the way we work now. The new connected, adaptable workplace depends on modern environments like SharePoint Online that bring a modern digital workplace experience to the entire organization.

Build your SharePoint Migration Team

In any SharePoint migration someone needs to do the planning, and someone needs to do the work. Migrations are managed like common IT projects, and this is the ideal Migration Team should consist of:

  • Migration Lead: Responsible for leading the migration and the migration team, usually reports to the executive board.
  • Project Manager: Responsible for managing staffing, roles and the project plan.
  • Information Architect: Responsible for creating the IA in the target environment. Information Architect needs to be a member of each team dealing with intranet modernizations; works closely with the Solution Architect.
  • Solution Architect: Responsible for migrating business solutions; needs to be a member of each team dealing with intranet modernizations; works closely with the Information Architect.
  • Migration Expert: Responsible for performing the migration and/or supporting teams during the migration; provides expert knowledge regarding using the designated migration tool.
  • Site Owners: Owners of the most important sites stay informed on migration planning and migration execution; sometimes they migrate their sites on their own.
  • Communication Expert: Responsible for any kind of communication, news and announcements regarding the migration. This person should be an expert in corporate communication. They’ll tailor communication to the target audiences and drive user adoption.
  • Technical Trainer: If required, provides technical knowledge transfer to members of the migration team and/or support team.
  • Support Expert: Member of the corporate support team. Needs to understand the project, as her team will take over once the migration is finished.
  • Adoption & Change Management Expert: User adoption campaigns are a critical element in almost all migration projects. A change management expert will typically plan change management and adoption campaigns.

As I mentioned before, this is the idealized composition of a migration team. For your migration, you might not need all of those roles, but I highly recommend following this list. In my experience, underestimating the importance of a dedicated migration team jeopardizes the chance for migration success.

To sum it up: If you are planning a migration to a newer version of SharePoint or SharePoint Online, treat this move as a substantial internal project. Start by staffing your migration team. Its members should be experts in their respective areas and will work together to create the project plan and a detailed migration plan. Don’t underestimate the importance of internal communication. Proper and tailored communication is crucial. This part of the project has a significant impact on the user-acceptance and the success of the entire migration. Migrations managed just by the corporate IT team should be an absolute exception rather than the usual approach.

Refresh your Business Solutions

Many organizations use line-of-business solutions of different complexity. Examples range from a basic Request for Vacation process all the way to a sophisticated custom CRM system. Presumably, those business applications built around the time when the corporate intranet got launched. If that was between 5 to 10 years ago, it is likely that those business applications use a different user interface paradigm, an outmoded design and may lack some useful functions (i.e. enhanced security, artificial intelligence, media support, voice recognition, OCR, improved database support, enhanced integration with 3rd party systems) which were too complex to build at the time.

Today, modern environments like Windows Azure not only provide great options to host LOB applications, but also offer a tremendous amount of services that can be used to enhance most LOB applications. Most, if not all, Azure services offer an easy to use API which makes it relatively straightforward to integrate a specific Azure service with an existing LOB application. Even if no additional functions are needed, you can boost performance with Windows Azure’s tailored storage options. Also, most Azure services can be managed and configured through the Azure portal. This offers additional benefits since business logic, sensitive business data and administration can be separated to provide an extra layer of security. One of the modern security concepts propagates that data and content should be kept separate from administrative tasks.

Windows Azure can host your Line of Business applications for a seamless SharePoint Online experience

Modernize SharePoint Structure

If your corporate intranet is more than 5 years old, it likely doesn’t reflect your current organizational structure. Using a deeply nested subsite structure will result in a considerable amount of work to update the structure (e.g. sites need to be moved from one Site-Collection to another). Today, intranets are not using a subsite structure anymore. Microsoft’s recommendation favors multiple Site Collections with just a root site over Site Collections with a deeply nested subsite structure.

A modern site structure provides many benefits that support the contemporary working style of today’s workforce. Here are some examples: flexible content distribution (like corporate news) based on target audiences, clear separation of the physical (technical) architecture from the logical architecture (applied to the main navigation), SharePoint Hub sites, flexible creation of collaboration environments using multiple repositories (like a project site including a Microsoft Teams team or Office 365 group) and easier management of sites (even though there will be more sites and Site-Collections). If your teams still work with classic teams sites, you’d be amazed by the power, efficiency and user-experience of a modern collaboration environment that ties together SharePoint Online, Microsoft Teams, Office 365 Groups and Yammer.

Each time I perform an assessment of a corporate intranet prior to a migration, I thoroughly check the site structure. Whenever I find that the site structure is based on subsites or/and the structure hasn’t been updated for a long time, I strongly recommend adding a site structure modernization activity to the migration plan.

To sum it up: A modern workspace requires a modern site structure. The times we must be very careful with content database sizes are finally over. Today, a modern digital workspace needs to be flexible. A modernized structure based on modern site templates provides many benefits that organizations can use to reduce maintenance costs, improve efficiency, increase user acceptance and ensure that changes to the underlying structure can be applied without starting a substantial internal IT maintenance project.

SharePoint Online Modern Site Template

SharePoint Online Modern Site Template

Revisit Metadata and Content Types

Each organization works with documents of different kinds. Those that use SharePoint as their intranet platform recognize the power that comes from associating Managed Metadata and Content Types with types of corporate documents. However, most organizations don’t update their Managed Metadata structure or their Content Types very often.

Whenever I do my pre-migration assessments, I usually check the Term Store and the Content Type hub. Content Types can only show their full potential if Managed Metadata terms and Content Types are up to date. Structural changes in an organization, new teams, new products, or new projects often require updates to the existing Content Type structure (which includes metadata). In many organizations, a corporate governance committee is responsible for keeping them up to date. If you are planning a migration, check with your corporate Governance Committee and verify the status of Content Types.

Usually, dealing with updated Content Types (which can include an updated metadata structure) during a migration is much easier than re-assigning documents after the fact, especially if you utilize modern migration tools like Sharegate. Best of all, you’ll make a positive impact on user search experience, content distribution and line-of-business applications as they all heavily rely on metadata.

Why are Content Types so important?

You might be wondering why I still think proper metadata and an elaborate Content Type structure are important for organizations. After all, SharePoint Search appears to be smart enough to index content thoroughly and to provide relevant search results without applying metadata to documents. What’s more, the modern SharePoint Search results page doesn’t take advantage of custom search refiners as the classic search results page does.

That’s a fair statement and technically, this is correct. The SharePoint Search algorithm which indexes content is very smart and the OOTB search results that don’t use custom metadata are surprisingly good. However, a proper metadata structure isn’t used just to improve the SharePoint Search results. Content management, content distribution, workflows and line of business applications all rely on metadata. And if the organizations uses the so-called search-driven applications (like ‘My documents’ or ‘2019 Business Reports’), proper metadata tagging is required. While modern SharePoint Search results page does not support custom refiners yet, that is about to change soon!

To sum it up: A proper metadata structure and tailored Content Types are a must for any modern digital workplace. Existing AI isn’t yet good enough to do this reliably. Since metadata and Content Types are rarely updated in older SharePoint implementations, a migration is a chance to revisit their structure. This will help you ensure that your documents are associated with the right Content Type.

Take Workplace Collaboration to the Next Level

Looking back a few years ago, when collaboration was still in its infancy, organizations considered customized team sites based on a classic site template a great achievement. Don’t get me wrong – classic team sites had many benefits, but they won’t take collaboration to the next level. Younger generations, that are new to the workplace, expect usable and intuitive solutions. The top names in tech invest heavily in this area to attract the best talent. While the same isn’t always possible for all organizations, commitment to increasing workplace collaboration certainly is.

Modern environments like SharePoint Online allow to build custom collaboration environments tailored exactly to the needs of teams. When compared to classic team sites, they dramatically reduce distracting context switching and improve productivity.

MIcrosoft 365 Universal Toolkit for Teamwork

Microsoft 365: Universal Toolkit for Teamwork

To sum it up: If you’re using classic team sites or custom site templates to support collaboration in your organization, I highly recommend that you don’t simply migrate them to your new SharePoint environment, be it SharePoint on-premises or SharePoint Online. Instead, do a collaboration assessment and plan a collaboration environment that’s right for the way your organization works. Rather, migrate existing collaboration environments (i.e. classic team sites) “as is” but ensure that new ones are build based on your modernized approach.


There’s no doubt that a migration from an established corporate intranet to a new platform is a big move for any organization – and, as any big move, it comes with a price tag. Saving on maintenance costs holds a huge appeal for those who move their intranets to the cloud, but a migration can be so much more than that.

I highly encourage looking at various aspects of your intranet to ensure that the costs pay off quickly. Believe it or not, but most corporate intranets scheduled for migration have a high potential for modernizations. If I was to rank them, updated metadata and Content Types would be top of the list, closely followed by updates to the existing site structure, social features and targeting audiences with content distribution.

A pre-migration assessment will help you identify areas with the highest potential for positive business impact. Once you have the options clearly laid out, it will be much easier to demonstrate and value of a reimagined collaboration space to your leadership team.