Date of Award

Winter 2005

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Engineering Management

Committee Director

Charles B. Keating

Committee Member

Andres Sousa-Poza

Committee Member

Ji Hyon Mun

Committee Member

James Pyne


The complexity of problems facing society continues to grow, and decision-makers and problem-solvers are finding many of today's emerging problems to be beyond their capability to adequately address. There is agreement in the literature that problems of this nature are complex system problems, inextricably linked to some highly complex system of systems. Establishing a clear understanding of the specific complex system context is fundamental to the process of understanding and analyzing complex systems and complex system problems across all of the different systems-based disciplines. While complex system context is widely referred to in systems literature, there is no clear characterization of exactly what system context is, making this foundational system concept ambiguous. This research addressed this gap in the systems body of knowledge by providing the needed detail and clarity to the concept of complex system context. A rigorous research methodology, employing the grounded theory method, was used to analyze data collected through a series of semi-structured interviews conducted with individuals reflecting a wide range of systems education and practical experience. Two research questions were identified as integral to increasing the understanding of context within complex systems. (1) What are the constituent elements of complex system context, and what attributes and dimensions characterize these elements? (2) What systems-based framework can be developed for constructing and articulating complex system context?

Using the grounded theory method, a theory of system context was constructed, adding to the systems body of knowledge and substantiating a comprehensive and unambiguous theoretical construct for system context within complex systems. Then, based on this theory, a conceptual model to articulate and capture system-specific complex system context was developed---the Complex System Contextual Framework (CSCF). The CSCF shows significant promise for contribution to systems practitioners by supporting the future development of tools to help practitioners capture system context as a part of complex system problem formulation. The research also made a contribution in the area of research methodologies by furthering the use of the grounded theory method in the engineering management and systems engineering domain, an area where its application has been very limited.