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Navigate uncertainty with a SaaS migration strategy

SaaS migrations can be tricky in the best scenarios. But in a crisis, IT has to act fast. Prioritize the essential data and communicate with users to get the best outcome.

A move to the cloud is no simple feat, even in the best of times. But when a crisis forces your hand, the stakes become much higher.

Under normal circumstances, company leaders may contemplate a move to cloud infrastructure or a SaaS model to save money and cut back on capital costs. The entire process, from evaluating cloud providers to mapping out and executing a migration, can take many months to complete.

However, when businesses are hit by an environmental or financial crisis -- such as the COVID-19 pandemic -- this process must shift. It's no longer a question of if a company should move to the cloud, but how a company should move to the cloud, so it can keep running with as little disruption as possible.

A cloud migration under crisis will undoubtedly have its hitches. However, it will go much smoother if your IT team already follows best practices with its on-premises applications and has a plan to prioritize the essential migration components. And you'll save yourself and your company a lot of headaches if you take the extra step to effectively communicate what's happening to users.

The problems with migrating to the cloud unprepared

When IT teams decide to make the jump from on-premises infrastructure to SaaS, they shouldn't focus on the application itself but rather the data the application stores. For example, it isn't hard to move on-site email or data storage to the cloud, from a technical standpoint. But there are important details that need to get sorted out, such as ensuring the availability of existing mailboxes or data.

For many users, historical data is critical to their day-to-day work and should be an important factor in a SaaS migration strategy. However, large data stores take a lot of time and money to move to the cloud, even under the best circumstances. When the cloud migration clock is ticking, this can cause a lot of issues for enterprises.

Instead of trying to move everything at once, focus on what you need in the short term. Don't ignore historical data but put it in the context of need and staff impact. You shouldn't expend all your time and energy on something that impacts a small fraction of your users.

Email and other team-based communication tools should be addressed first, with some conditions around prioritization. For example, historical email archives probably don't need to be moved on day one. Under normal circumstances, you wouldn't want to be making choices about what to migrate or support, but companies won't have that luxury in a crisis.

Organizations with solid data lifecycle management policies and data cleansing processes will be better prepared to handle data migrations. These processes mitigate migration costs by reducing the volume of unnecessary data transfers.

If you haven't done that ahead of time, you can still adjust as you go and achieve some cost saving. Prioritize your efforts and make honest assessments of the impact of leaving something behind. You can always move that data later, and you might even discover that your users get along just fine without it.

Organizations will also have to address the loss of customization. Many on-premises applications have been tweaked and adjusted over time to give end users exactly what they need, but much of that will be lost in the transition to SaaS. In addition, admins will no longer have access to the back end.

How to smooth the migration in difficult times

The loss of customizations isn't trivial and can impede your SaaS migration strategy. The severity depends on how those on-premises applications are used and whether the SaaS alternative can deliver the same key pieces.

For example, users might deem a function or report critical to their work. The migration team, unaware of this, might assume the capability is insignificant and see no issue with losing it in the move to SaaS. Before the team knows it, a user raises a complaint, and IT staff are diverted to address this one specific problem. This can derail an entire migration, involving upper management and creating headaches that aren't ideal in the best of circumstances and certainly not when a company -- or world -- is in a crisis.

An admin can mitigate some of these problems through communication and a cautionary explanation of the hurried transition and its impacts. While many people will tell you that they embrace change, they really only embrace the change they can control. That's not always possible with SaaS, so a solid communication plan is more important to this process than the actual technical change from on premises to SaaS.

Users need to understand that it isn't simply an application that's being moved to the cloud. Key services are being moved, and they may not be as comprehensive as the familiar on-site versions. When your company is in a triage scenario, the priority is getting the baseline capabilities up and running as soon as possible, so there might be limited functionality and historical data at the start. You must communicate this to users, in as many methods and formats as possible.

In addition to key stakeholders, involve power users and other people in your company that might have more than just a casual understanding of the services provided by IT. You're not looking for them to approve the changes, you're looking to keep them informed of the changes.

Part of the fear of change is the uncertainty, which often leads to confusion and panic. While having additional people aware of the SaaS migration strategy won't stop questions or complaints, it will reduce that surprise factor that fuels angry emails and phone calls.

In a crisis you want as many of your users as possible to understand what's happening. Having advocates and allies outside of IT will help.

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