On Some Lessons from Modeling Contexts in Complex Problem Solving in Information Technology

On Some Lessons from Modeling Contexts in Complex Problem Solving in Information Technology

D. Petkov (Eastern Connecticut State University, Willimantic, CT, USA), O. Petkova (Central Connecticut State University, New Britain, CT, USA) and T. Andrew (Durban University of Technology, Durban, South Africa)
Copyright: © 2013 |Pages: 16
DOI: 10.4018/jitr.2013100104


This paper reviews current research on context in problem solving and existing two-dimensional frameworks for expressing project contexts in Systems Thinking and Software Engineering. It makes the case for modeling of context with Problem Structuring Methods. The authors present lessons learnt from applying such methods in the context of their experience with several complex management interventions in Information and Telecommunications Technologies. The paper aims to contribute to the understanding of project contexts in complex problem solving in Information Technology.
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Context is “the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea” (Compact Oxford English Dictionary of Current English, 2005). It is often unnoticed but it becomes important when we try to model and understand the cognitive and social realms (Edmonds, 2012). Context may be defined as a complex description of shared knowledge about physical, social, historical, or other circumstances within which an action or event occurs (Brézillon et al. 2004). Brézillon (2011:23) states that “context constrains a focus without intervening in it explicitly’ and ads that as a consequence, (1) context is relative to the focus, (2) as the focus evolves, its context evolves too, and (3) context is highly domain-dependent”. According to Bazire1 and Brézillon (2005) it is difficult to find a relevant definition of this notion that is robust enough to satisfy any discipline. They point further that “context is almost a buzzword in psychology, as in a number of other areas, such as computer science or linguistics. However, like some words as “concept” or “system”, the word “context” either is not defined or it is possible to find as many definitions (in an ad hoc manner) as authors. A reason is that this word is used supposing that everybody knows its meaning… (Bazirel & Brézillon, 2005:31).

Context has been explored extensively in Psychology, Artificial Intelligence and other fields over the last 15 years but relatively little in Information Systems (an exception is a recent conceptual paper by Merali (2012) related to context and organizational intelligence in knowledge management). Systems Thinking (a related field) has contributed an important work on systemic project contexts by Jackson and Keys (1984) which has been applied to project contexts in software development recently (see Petkov, Alter, Petkova and Andrew, 2013). Problem Structuring Methods (Rosenhead & Mingers, 2001, Mingers & Rosenhead, 2004; Rosenhead, 2006) emerged as a strand in Operations Research in the 1970s and 1980s to address the difficulties in solving complex “wicked” or “messy” problems but context is only implicitly treated in that field without references to the growing research on context at the time and recently in other fields.

The paper aims to contribute to a better understanding of ways to explore project contexts in complex problem solving in Information Technology by linking work in software development to research on context in Psychology, Artificial Intelligence, Systems Thinking and Problem Structuring Methods and by providing some practical lessons from the experience of the authors with interventions dealing with representing and understanding context. The paper has three sub-goals: to provide a review of context research in various disciplines and software development and Systems Thinking/Operations Research; to make the case for using Problem Structuring Methods for understanding the multiple aspects of context in problem solving in Information Technology and to provide some lessons from several cases of mixing methods in large problems in Information and Communications Technologies (ICT). The paper proceeds with a review of past research on context in problem solving and then explores three two-dimensional frameworks for mapping of project contexts, one in Systems Thinking and the others – in software development. Further research on context definitions and the use of Problem Structuring Methods for context modeling are explored. That is followed by lessons from authors’ experience in uncovering contexts in complex problem solving interventions in software development management and telecommunications and a conclusion.

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