Toward a complexity theory of information systems development

Hind Benbya (UCLA Anderson School of Management, Los Angeles, California, USA)
Bill McKelvey (UCLA Anderson School of Management, Los Angeles, California, USA)

Information Technology & People

ISSN: 0959-3845

Publication date: 1 January 2006



Existing literature acknowledges information systems development (ISD) to be a complex activity. This complexity is magnified by the continuous changes in user requirements due to changing organizational needs in changing external competitive environments. Research findings show that, if this increasing complexity is not managed appropriately, information systems fail. The paper thus aims to portray the sources of complexity related to ISD and to suggest the use of complexity theory as a frame of reference, analyzing its implications on information system design and development to deal with the emergent nature of IS.


Conceptual analysis and review of relevant literature.


This article provides a conceptual model explaining how top‐down “official” and bottom‐up “emergent” co‐evolutionary adaptations of information systems design with changing user requirements will result in more effective system design and operation. At the heart of this model are seven first principles of adaptive success drawn from foundational biological and social science theory: adaptive tension, requisite complexity, change rate, modular design, positive feedback, causal intricacy, and coordination rhythm. These principles, translated into the ISD context, outline how IS professionals can use them to better enable the co‐evolutionary adaptation of ISD projects to changing stakeholder interests and broader environmental changes.


This paper considers and recognizes the different sources of complexity related to ISD before suggesting how they could be better dealt with. It develops a framework for change to deal with the emergent nature of ISD and enable more expeditious co‐evolutionary adaptation.



Benbya, H. and McKelvey, B. (2006), "Toward a complexity theory of information systems development", Information Technology & People, Vol. 19 No. 1, pp. 12-34.

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Copyright © 2006, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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