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How to Migrate Documents to SharePoint and Office 365: Step-by-Step Instructions

Posted on November 8, 2014

With the popularity of Microsoft’s Office 365 / SharePoint Online plans, lots of small organizations and non-profits are switching to Office 365 to take advantage of attractive per-user pricing model and one-stop shop capability of Office 365. However, the biggest challenge many companies face are on how to migrate documents to SharePoint from their current repositories located on file shares, DropBox and Google.

In this post I would like to explain what is involved in typical document migration to SharePoint, share best practices and warn you of things to be aware about.

The very first step for those considering migration is to understand the typical workflow of a SharePoint document migration. Below chart depicts the phases of a typical migration. While the image shows them appearing serially, in reality, some occur in parallel.

sharepoint migration workflow

Figure 1. SharePoint Document Migration Workflow

Phase 1: Education

Not something you would probably even think about, but this step is a must for anyone thinking about migration. This is where you need to make yourself familiar with SharePoint/Office 365, its Document Management capabilities in particular, various options you have to organize data, etc. SharePoint is very different platform from what you are using today, so understanding what it is all about is a must. You could not buy a car without driving it first, so need learn and educate yourself on SharePoint first!

Phase 2: Analysis & Requirements

Before moving the first file to the new site, you need to ask yourself first – what are the requirements of the new repository? There is probably a reason on why you acquired SharePoint/Office 365 and moving away from whatever you are using today. Is it having a central, company-wide repository? Or may be a greater collaboration amongst team members? Or is it ability to find the right version of a document and avoid duplication? Whatever it is, you need to understand those well and document them first.

Additional objective of this phase is to decide on what will be migrated. The truth of the matter is you don’t need to migrate it all. Those agendas and reports you created in 1998 are probably great but do you really need to have them in the new repository? You know when you move from one house to another, you through away some stuff in the garbage? I am not suggesting you completely throw old files away – archiving them is a great idea, but if you decide to migrate them, you will be paying for extra storage, migration and extra time you would need to spend moving the files. Moreover, having unnecessary documents in your repository might slow down your users trying to find relevant data/info.

Phase 3: Information Architecture

This is where you determine how the new state will look like. Information Architecture can mean many different things, but in the context of SharePoint document migration, it answers the following 3 key questions:

1. Where will the documents reside (i.e. multiple sites or libraries)?

2. Who will have access to the new sites and document libraries?

3. How will the documents be organized?

Let me help you and expand on these questions.

1. Where will the documents reside?

If you are migrating from a file share or DropBox, it is quite possible that you had all your files stored in various folders, all sitting under “one roof”. This might not be a case going forward. For example, if you have folders related to HR department, you might not want to have them sitting in the same spot as the rest of them. If there are folders that require special security/permissions, they would be better off sitting on a different site or document library all together.

SharePoint Site Structure

Figure 2. SharePoint Site Structure example

2. Who will have access to the new sites and document libraries?

This is related to the previous point, but in case you decide to settle with multiple sites/multiple document libraries concept, you also need to decide on different security groups you will have and various permission levels they will have to the new libraries. May be your Marketing Department will have Contribute access for the department staff, but Read Only for anyone outside of it so users can download and access marketing materials?

3. How will the documents be organized?

There are many different ways to organize documents in SharePoint / Office 365. Please reference my previous post on the 5 ways to organize documents in SharePoint. If you googled this topic already, essentially there are 2 schools of thought here. You can keep using folders or switch to metadata. If you have read my previous posts (12 reasons Folders in SharePoint are a bad idea), you probably know that I am a big “no folders in SharePoint” advocate. Whatever method you choose – please choose the method that will work best for your organization.


Folder-based this is by far the easiest way to migrate. You essentially will be using drag and drop feature of SharePoint. The issue you encounter with this method though is that SharePoint is very moody when it comes to using special characters in files and folder names. So you will need to fix that first before migration.


 Metadata is my favorite way of organizing data. There are many reasons and advantages for using metadata. Want to learn more about it? You might want to study this slide deck. The number 1 question I usually ask clients who prefer to stay with folders is why migrate to SharePoint in the first place? I go into more detail  in this post.

Phase 4: Data Mapping

This phase precedes the migration phase and its output is the mapping document which details a roadmap/instructions on where the documents will reside in new SharePoint. If you decided to stick with folders, the document will tell you which folders go where (sites/libraries). However, it is even more useful if you opted for metadata as a way to organize documents. Essentially you have files in folders going to metadata (tags, columns and content types) and mapping document is meant to link each and every folder to the new place in SharePoint. Yes, this phase is very manual and you do need to spend some time thinking it through, but trust me it pays off!

Phase 5: SharePoint Configuration

This the phase where you start to build stuff. This is where you take all learned and documented in previous phases and start developing/configuring stuff. This is where you would build new sites or site templates, configuring document libraries, creating columns, document types and views. This is also a phase where security groups will be setup.

Phase 6: Migrate Documents to SharePoint

The most exciting phase of them all! There are 2 ways to migrate, choose the method that you are most comfortable with depending on your comfort level and technical know-how.


If you are going from folder-based structure in current repository to folder-based in SharePoint this is the way to go. Essentially you can drag and drop folders from whatever repository you are currently using (File Shares, Dropbox, Google drive, etc.). The thing with drag-and-drop is that you might encounter characters in your current file and folder names that are not allowed in SharePoint, so you will need to deal with those.

 If you are going from folders to metadata, you can still drag-and-drop, but you will also need to tag documents as you go along. That means that you might need to move documents in smaller batches to be able to tag as well. That means that your migration will be a lot slower.

Using migration tool

If you have repositories with more than few thousand documents, you might want to consider commercial migration tools. There are plenty of choices out there, just google on the subject. Each tools has pros and cons and requires different levels of technical knowledge from the user. Some are priced according to amount of data to be migrated while others have a flat license fee.

Phase 7: Training

The roll out of new site or repository should not stop with the migration of the documents. Training is by far the phase that is always missed or ignored by organizations.

Neglecting or avoiding user training during SharePoint / Office 365 implementations is a crime.

Please, do not make this trivial mistake – you spent so much time and money getting to this point, why waste it with poor user adoption and unhappy users? It does not have to be complicated. A quick user guide complimented with 30-60 minutes of online training is all you need to separate successful go live SharePoint / Office 365 implementation from a disastrous one. This is also a phase where you will be training your users about SharePoint Governance – essentially policies and procedures around your new repository. This is a separate topic altogether and I plan to publish a post on this at a later point.

That should do it. Hope you found this post on how to migrate documents to SharePoint helpful. Good luck with your SharePoint migration. If you have any questions about your particular case, don’t hesitate to send me an email . Will be glad to help.

About Me

I’m Greg Zelfond, a U.S. based SharePoint consultant, and I provide affordable out-of-the-box SharePoint consulting, training, and configuration assistance to small and medium-sized businesses all over the world.

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