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System requirements engineering in complex situations


The purpose of this paper is to present an alternative systems thinking–based perspective and approach to the requirements elicitation process in complex situations. Three broad challenges associated with the requirements engineering elicitation in complex situations are explored, including the (1) role of the system observer, (2) nature of system requirements in complex situations, and (3) influence of the system environment. Authors have asserted that the expectation of unambiguous, consistent, complete, understandable, verifiable, traceable, and modifiable requirements is not consistent with complex situations. In contrast, complex situations are an emerging design reality for requirements engineering processes, marked by high levels of ambiguity, uncertainty, and emergence. This paper develops the argument that dealing with requirements for complex situations requires a change in paradigm. The elicitation of requirements for simple and technically driven systems is appropriately accomplished by proven methods. In contrast, the elicitation of requirements in complex situations (e.g., integrated multiple critical infrastructures, system-of-systems, etc.) requires more holistic thinking and can be enhanced by grounding in systems theory.

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  1. This paper uses the term observer very broadly to include system owner, designer, requirement elicitor, analyst, users, etc. Therefore, the term system observer is used as a collective representation of people involved in any aspects of requirement elicitation process.

  2. Requirements can also be interconnected as addressed in [15, 16]. In this section, the space that allows for requirements interconnectivity to take place is at the discussion.

  3. Authors acknowledge that refinement of requirements can take place. However, elicitation of requirements from stakeholders is most appropriately suited for situations of high stability and certainty.


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The authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewers whose comments significantly improved the quality of this paper. The authors are grateful to Pericles Loucopoulos and William N. Robinson, Editors-in-Chief for Journal of Requirements Engineering and technical support from the National Centers for System of Systems Engineering (NCSoSE) at Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA, USA.

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Correspondence to Polinpapilinho F. Katina.

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Katina, P.F., Keating, C.B. & Jaradat, R.M. System requirements engineering in complex situations. Requirements Eng 19, 45–62 (2014).

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  • Complex situation
  • Requirements elicitation
  • System complexity
  • Systems theory
  • Systems thinking