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The difference between migration and transition

by Mark P. McDonald  |  August 29, 2011  |  9 Comments

We are all sometimes loose with terminology. Just consider terms like architecture, value, strategy and the like and its easy to see how the same words can have slightly different meanings. However beneath every word there is a meaning, a sense, an idea and its helpful to go back to the root of the word to understand its meaning better.

Two words that have lost some of their meaning are migration and transition.

Earlier in my career I had the pleasure of working for a really smart, really picky and somewhat prickly executive who was very exact with his language. He pointed out that ‘systems do not migrate, ducks migrate, caribou migrate, not systems.” When I asked why he was so instant that migration be banned from IT discussions, his answer was simple:

Migration means you go somewhere and then you come back.

He pointed out that in IT there is no going back only going forward.

Transition is the word that most accurately reflects what is going on. When you transit you move from one place to another without a promise of return.

I know that it sounds a little pedantic, but IT changes are transitions not migrations.

Implementing a transition requires IT to do some things differently, things that they are not really doing now.

In a transition you:

Transition the operation/organization rather than deploy an application. This means that you look at deployment from the perspective of the deployment unit rather than from the projects perspective.

Transition changes the way you manage, measure and guide the organization. If these things do not change then you are going to get the same old result, but after a significant investment and often higher operating cost structure.

Transition requires removing old assets, processes, policies, practices etc. You burn your bridges when making a transition as there is no going back because there should not be a way back because that is only a way back into the problems that led to the transition in the first place.

Transition creates the opportunity to start fresh and move forward to get the benefits rather than revisiting the past. This is a major flaw in many organizations that would rather relive the past today than move forward toward tomorrow. That is possible in a migration as change is viewed as circular rather than directional. In a transition, the past is the past and all the value is in the future.

The Talking Heads had a great way of thinking about this in their song “Give Me Back My Name”

“There’s a word for it And words don’t mean a thing

There’s name for it And names make all the difference in the world”

Migration is a word.

Transition needs to be a name for the type of change we need to deliver.

Category: it-governance  leadership  management  signs-of-weak-management  

Tags: change-leadership  change-management  it-leadership  it-management  strategy-and-planning  

Mark P. McDonald
8 years at Gartner
24 years IT industry

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a former group vice president and head of research in Gartner Executive Programs. He is the co-author of The Social Organization with Anthony Bradley. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on The difference between migration and transition

  1. Tim Featherstone-Griffin says:

    Transition is a change of state, not place. And there is nothing in the definition of migration (which IS a change of place) that implies ‘going back’ either. I’m inclined to agree that transition better describes IT change than migration, but I think you should have bought your picky Exec a dictionary…

  2. Mark P. McDonald says:

    TIm, thanks for your comments. The term migration is used frequently in IT to describe a change in place, true. But a migration in terms of groups of people is more often cyclical, with an implied migration back, which is what the picky executive was trying to get at.

    He saw people talking about migration and treating it with a different level of intensity than when the teams talked about a transition. That difference was what I was trying to bring out.

    Thanks for your comments and for reading the blog.


  3. Tim Featherstone-Griffin says:

    Heh. I’m just a pedant who rails against being people being imprecisely picky about language… :-) But your blog’s amongst my regular reads, often has some real insightful stuff.

  4. Mark P. McDonald says:

    Thanks Tim.

    I understand regarding language as it drives me crazy some time,

    Glad to hear that this blog is among your regular reads.

    If you have other recommended reads that would be great.

    Glad that the blog provides some insightful stuff. Please keep the comments coming.

  5. Dirk-Jan Dijkstra says:

    Dear Tim and Mark,

    As a datawarehouse lead in an insurance company I always use migration for a “move of same technology” and transition for a “technology change on same platform”. I agree with Tim that a migration doesn’t imply coming back, even for people. For instance nomads, they migrate continuously but might never come to the same spot twice.

  6. Dear Dirk, Tim and Mark,
    I agree with Dirk about use migration for a “move of same technology”. Migration to new product, platform, technology for doing the same thing. Transition sounds more about moving to new way or processor of doing thing that we expect to be better.
    BTW, thanks Mark for all great posts.

  7. Anshul Joshi says:

    Great insights on the key business words we almost frequently interchange with thinking its the same thing.
    While all the discussions above are related to an IT environ, does the same imply for BPOs (I believe yes, just that need your expert comments on that; pardon my ignorance)….

  8. […] linger only creates confusion, sends conflicting signals and supports continuation of the past.  Don’t migrate to the future, transition to […]

  9. “Migration means you go somewhere and then you come back.” not necessarily. Some migrators – in the non IT world – migrates and stays where they migrated.
    Some people from my country – Sweden – moved (or migrated) to the US years ago and stayed.

    I agree with the former writer “Migration to new product, platform, technology for doing the same thing. Transition sounds more about moving to new way or processor of doing thing that we expect to be better.”.
    So we migrate from VisualBasic older version to newer version of Visual Basic. But we do a transition from Oracle DB to Oracle ExaData.

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