American Journal of Industrial and Business Management, 2012, 2, 109-115 Published Online October 2012 ( 109
Making Sense of Environmental Complexity in a Reform
Context: The Case of Megaproject Alpha
Marcel Veenswijk
Department of Organizational Sciences, VU University Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Received April 19th, 2012; revised June 4th, 2012; accepted June 19th, 2012
In this paper, new concepts on environmental complexity and sense making are developed and explored and analysed.
The article based on a case study regarding a public-private collaboration in a Dutch infrastructural mega project. It is
argued that the ability to influen ce the direction of the chan ge process of the mega proj ect “Alpha” depends on the way
actors are able to influence the so aleed “cultural interfaces” into the power arena by means of a specific group of or-
ganizational stakeholders. After a short theoretical intro duction, we describe the case in terms of two dominant cultural
stages and their specific interface dynamics. The paper concludes with a general reflection on the central concepts.
Keywords: Project Management; Mega Projects; Narratives of Change; Intervention; Public-Private Collaboration;
Change Dynami cs
1. Introduction
Although the societal impact of large scale construction
projects (“Mega projects”) is enormous, academic in-
terest on this subject has been modest. The discussion
seems to be limited to the rational organization and (po-
litical) control in terms of policy programs, contracting,
perceived outcomes, and especi ally risk and economi c fail-
ures [1].
Mega projects are considered to be as much the object
and outcome of social interactions as any other form of
organizing within a multiple context of socially interde-
pendent networks. The institutional connotation related
to “policy formulation versus implementation”, “design
versus construct” or even “BOOT” (Build Own-Operate-
Transfer) are ways of bracketing normative (first order)
reality definitions of these relationships. Mega project
can be discerned from other enterprises in terms of con-
tent (including the physical artefacts that result from the
projects), temporality (the assumption that the project
reality is limited in linear timescales and spaces), con-
textual “patching” (the idea that ambiguity is excluded
via politically) legitimized contractual modes, and social
variation (amount of social interactions related to the pro-
jects mission and goals) [2].
In the late 1980’s of the last century, many European
countries worked on an European network of high speed
railways. The ministers in the European Commission of
Transport gave in 1990 their approval to the development
of an European high speed railway network. The Euro-
pean infrastructural network was intend ed to improve the
economical situation in the European Community and to
form an environmental friendly alternative for air and car
travel in Europe. The Netherlands, as part of the Euro-
pean Community, developed two distinct high speed rail-
ways; one to the south and one to the east. As with other
European countries, a part of the financial support came
from the European Community [3].
The first plan for developing the high speed railway
south and east was presented to the Dutch government
already in 1991. Because of the social and environmental
impact of the project on the dense populated Netherlands,
and because of the financial consequences only the high
speed railway to the south was approved by the govern-
ment. A project-organization (called Alpha team), re-
wrote the plans into a huge memorandum of more than
23 reports. An important condition in the construction of
the railway was the need of partly private finances. Fur-
thermore, the infrastructure should be exploited profita-
bly. In 1996 the Dutch parliament agrees upon the con-
struction of project Alpha to realize a safe and comfort-
able train passage from Amsterdam to Belgium with a
speed of 300 kilometers a hour.
During the last decade, infrastructure became one of
the main issues on the Dutch political agenda, Project
Alpha attracted a lot of (international) attention , not only
for their societal implications, but particularly because
they were characterized by major deviations in terms of
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. AJIBM
Making Sense of Environmental Complexity in a Reform Context: The Case of Megaproject Alpha
overspending, incorrect timeframes/planning and cor-
rupttion, which resulted in intensive parlementairy in-
quiries and a redesign of control models and steering
design. Originally, the project was designed as (experi-
mental) public-private cons tellations in which public and
private actors participated and had a joint responsibly for
construct and design, as well as for exploitation. Al-
though most of the designing was actually the result of
public-private co operation, and the hybrid organizatio nal
construction was reflected in the way the project organi-
zations were empowered (70% of the employees were
hired on a temporal basis, 30% were public employees),
exploitation remained a matter of the state. This also
counts for the (public sector) hierarchical—machi ne like—
formal construction which was chosen in order to build
the projects. The top managers of the project organiza-
tion were all public employees. The CEO, (called Hoof-
dingenieur directeur), reported (via the secretary-general
of the ministry) to the Minister of Transport [4].
This paper focuses on the ways actors within the Al-
pha project deals with environmental complexity in a
shifting reform context. Alpha project is one of the larg-
est infrastructural project in the history of the Nether-
lands. Many technological complex problems had to be
solved to dig a seven kilometre long tunnel in instable
clay, to build bridges over wide rivers, to stabilize the
railway in swampy grounds and to reduce environmental
impact in dense populated areas. Furthermore, thousands
of civilians living next to the high speed railway are in-
volved as well as 19 local governments, three counties
and twelve offices for water management. The complex-
ity for realization of the mega-infrastructural project was
increased by the many construction and engineering com-
panies, governmental departments, the Dutch Railways
and many other organizations.
This project is relevant because it contains a specific
form of complexity which cristallizes in an organiza-
tional arrangement, based on the idea of “loose coupling”
via multi-lateral contract-forms. The case describes the
way the project was internally organized, the art of the
contracting relations between the various actors and the
surveillance structure around these contracting/control
After introduction of the theoretical nese, the case is
introduced and presentated in four basic episodes. The
analysis of the cases is concluded with some conclusive
remarks as well as a reflection on basic theoretical con-
2. Theoretical Backgrounds
Ethnographic studies on organisational configurations
underline the notion that (concepts of external) project
environments are subject to processes of social construc-
tion [5]. In order to cope with contextual complexity and
ambiguity, project actors construct a more or less stable
working environment for themselves. The subjective state
of “world-openness” changes along with the dynamics of
the project into an objectified situation of world-closed-
ness, which strongly influences and steers actors’ behav-
iour within that stabilised environment.
“Organisational environment” is one of the broadest
concepts in organisational studies, as it can be extended
to include almost every aspect of physical and textual
context. Organisationa l scientists use the term “org anisa-
tional environment” to refer to nations, politics, econom-
ics, technology, history, physical settings, demographics,
religions, regions, occupations, and industries. The dis-
tinction between organisations and their environment
makes it possible for organ isational scientists to consider
organisations as separate entities. Yet, the two are not
easy to separate. By drawing a clear boundary between
organisations and their environments, new questions
about the permeability of these boundaries arise. Organ-
isational members simultaneously perform activities in-
side and outside of organisations. For that reason, Pfeffer
and Salancik defined the control of organisations over
the activities of employees as one of the central bounda-
ries of an organisation [6]. Beyond these boundaries, the
influence of an organisational environment on the active-
ties of employees is more dominant than internal organ-
isational control. Starbuck defined multiple boundaries
by one’s distance from an organisation’s centre. Th e first
boundary includes both organisational members and peo-
ple who are conventionally regarded as members of other
organisations but who are involved in the organisation’s
activities. The second boundary implies that all those
without are not involved in the organisation’s activities
Organisations and environments are interrelated since
organisations are dependent on their environment, and
environments create uncertainties for organisations. This
interdependence receives primary attention in the open
systems perspective. Any boundary between an organisa-
tion and its environment is partially arbitrary; organisa-
tions are perceived as open systems with permeable
boundaries. Scott sees organisations as “open systems”,
in which an organisation can be characterized as a coali-
tion of shifting interest groups which develop goals
through nego tiation. The structure of th e coalition, its ac-
tivities and its outcomes are strongly influenced by en-
vironmental factors [8].
To solve the “problem” of permeable boundaries be-
tween organisations and their environments, organisa-
tional anthropologist Chanlat developed a framework to
study organisations and their environments by focusing
on human behaviour while at the same time exploring all
the relationships within the environment which run
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. AJIBM
Making Sense of Environmental Complexity in a Reform Context: The Case of Megaproject Alpha 111
through organisational life at different levels. Chanlat
used a holistic analysis o f organisational environ ments to
understand the behaviour of individuals in organisations.
He distinguishes five closely linked levels of organisa-
tional reality. The first level is the individual level, in
which Chanlat sees human reality as a subtle interaction
of the biological, the psychic and the social. At this level,
individuals construct and deconstruct their own reality
and cope with conflicts, tensions, uncertainties and am-
biguities. At the second level, the interactional level, the
identity of an individual is formed in interactions with
others. These interactions, formal and informal, can take
place between two different individuals or between two
different groups. Th e third level, the org anisational level,
focuses on organisational cultures. The fourth level, the
society level, concerns national cultures. These national
cultures have evo lved due to geography, history, po litical
and economic forces, language and religion. The fifth
level, the global level, deals with such transnational ide-
ologies as religion, globalization and liberalization [9].
Each level is analytically independent and contains ele-
ments which are linked to each other in relatively stable
relationships. There is no hierarchical relationship be-
tween the different levels; the levels are contingent in
nature and the relationships can move in any direction.
Actors more or less “externalize” the different levels, ac-
cording to their specific perspective and project con-
According to Berger & Luckman, externalization is a
basic condition for survival in a social context. As a re-
sult of continual externalization, some aspects of the so-
cial world are objectified, providing them with a status
which is unrelated to the ind ividual who has externalised
them. Objectification concerns the process in which pat-
terns of behaviour of specific aspects of human activity
become “facts” external to actors [10].
Weick stated that cultural development in organisa-
tional contexts can only be understood by means of
processes which develop within organisational configu-
rations. In his opinion, these processes can be divided
into three sequential phases [11]. The first phase he dis-
tinguished is enactment. Actors create a context or envi-
ronment for themselves, from which they constantly se-
lect and enact a number of elements which they regard to
be relevant. According to Weick, actors continuously
ascribe new meaning to their reality, rather, to their con-
text during interaction.
As project members are constantly communicating
with each other and adjusting their behaviour so that it is
in line with that of others, they are continually actively
interfering with their own environment. In other words:
in their daily interactions they create a significant part of
what they experience as their central meaning patterns.
Of the many contextual facts, some aspects are called
“relevant”, while others are dismissed as “irrelevant”.
This selective bracke ting of facts results in such a reduc-
tion of complexity that it becomes acceptable to maintain
it as a useful reality. Through this process of enactment,
actors generate their own subjective view of reality
throughout time. After the first phase of enactment, the
next phase, selection, can begin. In this phase, the parts
of “reality” that can be used in a certain situation are se-
lected using a complex of criteria. After all, the project
actors have isolated the facts that have been placed be-
tween brackets during the first phase, but they have not
yet been interpreted and rid of any ambiguity. In the
phase of selection, the rough data from the environment
is interpreted using cognitive maps. These are causal
structures that provide informatio n over the meaning that
facts have in regard to each other.
In the final phase, those of retention, a further reduce-
tion of the complexity takes place. Not only is the taking
in of new information characteristic for this phase; in-
formation that is already stored in one’s memory is also
tested. Through this, a number of “gestalts” arise, with
which new situations can be “recognised” quickly and
can be reacted upon using the logic of the gestalts.
Should new information no longer “fit” with the stored
information (or with the gestalt) then, in time, a modifi-
cation in the cognitive structure will take place. For
Weick, project development is no more than a group of
social processes, in which individual actions of two or
more actors are related within an environmental context.
By that he means that the action logic of various inter-
acting actors is related. According to Weick, that link can
be observed when the actions of actors that are busy
talking to each other are analysed: one person’s behav-
iour turns out to be “correlated” to the other person’s be-
haviour and vice versa. The main line is that the process
of cultural development is an action circle in which the
phases of enactment, selection and retention continually
alternate [12].
The elements that are regarded as relevant are placed
“between brackets” in order to reach an acceptable re-
ducetion of ambiguity. Actors interpret the elements that
have been placed between brackets using their own webs
of significance. These webs of significance develop dur-
ing processes of interaction between actors. After the
elements of the context have been interpreted, they are
stored in the actor’s memory in the retention phase and
set up against information that has been internalised by
the actor in an earlier phase. In th is phase, actors’ activi-
ties develop into routines. Events and problems that the
actor faces are ‘recognised’ from an existing frame of
reference and solutions are created from the patterns de-
veloped in previous phases. In time, the elements, ap-
proach to proble ms and attributes with which one is con-
fronted, become reifications: They reach the status of
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. AJIBM
Making Sense of Environmental Complexity in a Reform Context: The Case of Megaproject Alpha
“fact” or “objectivity”. It is taken for granted that these
objectifications hav e no independent reason for existen ce
outside of actors. However it is also assumed that these
“facts”, which are recognised as such by certain actors,
can be taken over by other actors in processes of interac-
tion and as such be internalised by others.
In traditions and rituals, certain ideas and action pat-
terns of project actors are passed on. Changes in webs of
significance arise when certain elements are enacted
through processes of interaction and therefore no longer
fall within existing cognitive maps [13]. Actors find
themselves confronted with problems and challenges
they did not have to deal with in the past and, through
processes of interaction, they create a new “reality” that
can be used to solve them [14]. For instance, the rise of
information technology has had major cultural cones-
quences for many project organisations. More than in the
past, the frames of reference that have developed in light
of the new technological developments are about techni-
cal superiority and the belief in the fact that technically
“loaded” projects are able to provide a “rational solution”
for problems that seem impossible to solve. We see this
in the case of ALPHA, which illustrates the organisa-
tional reflection in terms of technical as well as social
and moral constructed environmental definitions.
3. Research Methods
The ALPHA case reconstruction is a result of intensive
study, which was executed by a team of a senior re-
searcher and two research assistants. The research in the
ALPHA case was “sliced” into a number of phases, in
which the attention shifted from element to element of
the culture being studied. The most important motivation
for a phased method was that it is the only way for a
researcher to create a well-organised and controllable re-
search agenda with room for interim reflection and
correction of possible “blind spots”. The research was
split up into four main phases: 1) General orientation on
the project environment within which the organisation
operates; 2) Analysis of important documents from the
organisation and the context of the unit that was to be
studied; 3) Focussed interviews with employees, exem-
plo yee s a nd relevant key figures from the environment; 4)
Search for confirmation of the conceived re search data
and interpretations. Naturally, each phase started with an
introduction, in which agreements were reached on the
research and a short presentation of the method was
given. During a period of six months (semi) open indi-
vidual interviews were held with 20 stake-holders within
the project and 20 actors in the context of the Project
organisation, especially clients (10), representatives of
pressure groups (5) and general public (5). Further, key
meetings were observed and important documents were
4. Case Description
From the start, European stakeholders described the
ALPHA project in terms of its innovative capacity “uni-
que” character [15]. Early policy papers report about the
innovative cocepts and creative management philos-
The project team that created the project infrastructure
was defined as “professional entrepreneurs”: A highly
trained group of expers with a large mandatory budget.
The project was originally designed as an (experimental)
public-private constellation in which public and private
actors participated and had a joint responsibly for con-
struct and design, as well as for exploitation.
The organization consisted of a so called public-pri-
vate (BOOT) arrangement (seventy percent of the em-
ployees were hired on a temporal basis, thirty percent
were public employees), exploitation remained a matter
of the state. This also counts for the (public sector) hier-
archical—machine like—formal construction, which was
chosen in order to build th e project. The top managers of
the ALPHA organisation were all public employees. Th e
CEO (the engineer who is the responsible for the techni-
cal part of the entire project) reported via the secre-
tary-general of the ministry to the Minister of Transport.
The project can be described in two (more or less) suc-
cessive episodes, with a timeframe of ten years.
Phase 1: Controlling environmental complexity thr o u g h
separation (1996-2001)
The reason for using a complete set of new techniques
and readjustments had to do with the highly unstable
physical circumstances. For example, in order to spare
the valuable scenic landscape it was decede to make a
large tunnel. For this, a (unique) construction with a di-
ameter of almost 15 metres should be one of the largest
bored tunnel in the world. Because of its technical supe-
riority and ecologically sound design, this tunnel became
the symbol of the ALPHA “high-tech” qu ality.
The project organization deceide to divide the project
in five project agencies, connecting the different geo-
graphical entities. The interconnection was realized via
various ranges of contracts, between the principal and the
agencies on the on hand and between private architects,
or constructors, and the agencies on the other hand. In
total, there were more than 900 (sub) contracts in opera-
Monitoring of the contracts took place on a quarterly
basis, and surveillance was arranged via a complicated
set of ICT-systems. Athough initially, the manag ement of
ALPHA project centred in Capital City (Ministry of Trans-
por) after one year the leading project team moved to a
separate location outside Capital City. As a result of
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. AJIBM
Making Sense of Environmental Complexity in a Reform Context: The Case of Megaproject Alpha 113
large scale reorganizations in the Ministry and new regu-
lation acts, the project team was forced to internalize new
“subsets of behaviour” regarding the management of the
project. The European guidelines (e.g. Technical Speci-
fications for Interoperability) also had to be incorpor ated
therein. A concessions act was going to be passed which
was to regulate the relationship between a Transport Op-
erating Company (TOC) and the State. The relationship
between the State and the Infra manager was going to be
regulated by means of a concession [16].
The impact of the changes concerned more than just
the project organization. The original idea to divide all
the work into some forty traditional contracts (including
the idea that the railway would be responsible for the
“commercial customer part”) was rigorously altered. The
outcome of the severe discussions resulted in a thirty
year covering Design, Build, Finance and Maintain core
contract, which included a set of five connected Design &
Construct sub-contracts [17].
Since there was only limited experience of driving at
high speed, a railway construction without (the usual)
ballast was created; besides the planned (one of the larg-
est) underground Tunnel (in terms of its diameter in mel-
low soil) this was one of the major innovations in the
As part of the management “ideology”, the credo “de-
central unless” coverd the basic responsibilities between
the Ministry on the one hand and the ALPHA orgnaiza-
tion on the other hand. The contractors were held respon-
sible for the planning and budgetary issues. Interventions
from the ministry were only accepted in specific, crisis
like situations. The logic behind this was that managers
“on spot” were probably better informed than their col-
leagues in Capital City.
In 2002, a new conflict arose around the quarterly re-
ports. The reports were available in a limited online en-
vironment, but only a small group of team members had
access to the data and were able to interpret deviations.
While the “frontstage” reality of the project, more and
more became dominated with technical imperatives and
technical/rational models of report, day to day reality
showed a different picture. Conflicts about the work were
only partly visible in the reports and were kept “back-
stage” within the subgroups [18].
Conflict issues, such as lack of trust on accuracy of
data between different parties, cultural tensions between
the groups, inadequate communication and frequency of
report lead to a growing tension between the principal
actors (Ministry) and the project team.
The conflicts resulted in a set of interventions, which
were indicated by the Ministry. Not only was a new top
executive appointed and made responsible for the entire
project organization. Also the organizational vision was
transformed into a “central unless” adagium, backed with
series of dialogue sessions, r ound tab les and j ob rotatio ns
in which the different contract teams were more or less
forced to operate. In order to deal with the “information
problems”, a specific set of new reporting procedures
were implemented and a major reduction and clustering
of contracts was decided upon.
Stage 2: Institutional transplantation and consoli-
dation (2003-2010)
Six months after the implementation of the intervene-
tions, a new chapter in the project started. “System-Inte-
gration” became the new focus and basically concerned
the connections between the basic main ports as well as
ways to deal with risk items concerning the interconnec-
The team claimed that additional risk reservations and
as a result of this: New financial claims, which—again—
caused media commotion and a political quest to re-
structure the organization of ALPHA. A tripartite Board
of Directors (role model for all the CCE directorates) was
installed in which the connection with the Infra manager
and the responsibility for the control of the project was
strongly emphasized. In addition, the main department of
Transportation, Safety and System-integration was split
up, as was the main department that managed the con-
tract with Trail [19].
Besides the Ministry and claims of political represent-
tatives, the ALPHA project team members were con-
fronted with additional problems that were hardly pre-
dictable. For instance, the problems that arose in 2003
with regard to the height of platforms at the stations situ -
ated along the ALPHA-railway. In order to standardize
the high-speed rail system a series of European directives
by the European Transport Committee, e.g. Directive
2001/16 which is part of the EU Safety Rules were in-
troduced. Alpha was forced to standardize many objects
in their project, such as the height of platforms. Adaption
to these new “complexities” caused new uncertainties
and tensions in the ALPHA org anisation. During the im-
plementation of the directive, most of the technical blue-
prints of the stages had already been completed and the
team realized that redesigning the stages would be very
expensive. Eventually, new blue prints were construct-
ed, with a new delay of several months.
Implementation of the Railway Act in 2006, resulted
in a new focus shift. The project as such more and more
became the shadow to the transportation component. And
this resulted once again in tensions. In line with this,
control-oriented issues about the transportation compo-
nent came up, such as: “we wish to make agreements
with the ALPHA”, or “the ALPHA should do X”, or
“when will the ALPHA do Y” etcetera. Questions which
did not square with the nature of the agreement with the
ALPHA, a rather functional and distant (public) agree-
ment, respectively did not square with the formal positio n
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. AJIBM
Making Sense of Environmental Complexity in a Reform Context: The Case of Megaproject Alpha
of the management of the ALPHA. Often questions arose
around specific responsibilities of project managers ver-
sus responsibilities the Ministry of Transport o r the Infra
manager. These comments were not taken well, and also
the interpretation of there role as a team—behind the
scenes, informal, influential, helpful, statutorily pure,
helping everyone to assume their assigned roles, and hold
them to it—came under pressure as a result.
Although the reflection on the mission of the project
remained a central issue to the Alpha team until the end
of the project, the “Integral Transport System” and “Turn-
Key Delivery”, appeared to be the ultimate political mes-
sages for the entire management of the ALPHA. These
issues not only became a mantra for political representa-
tives, but at the same time created an efficient wall to
hide behind when “difficult questions” came up, regard-
ing next steps and new project s.
5. Analysis and Conclusions
In the case of the Alpha project, the cost factor became
the major struggle for management as well as for politi-
cal representatives. As we have seen, the original decen-
tralization oriented strategy pushed towards a large vari-
ety of types and amounts of internal contracts. Although
the one sided focus on contracting was seen as a crucial
vehicle in the battle against cost overrun, this strategy
was insufficient. The (relatively) separated contracts
were related to specific artefacts (like bridges, tunnels,
platforms, etc.) and cost overrun on these sub-contracts
did not act as trigger for redesign on the other project-
artifacts. On the contrary, local actors often considered
the completion of an artefact like a tunnel (despite the
cost factor) as an act of strong management and deci-
siveness, a result of courage to “stand up” against central
bureaucrats that should be followed by the other project
agency-managers. In the last phase of the project, con-
tract standardization was heavily increased by the (new)
project director of the HSA-organization. Project con-
trollers were empowered to intervene “if necessary”. Th e
quarterly reports were based on the complicated report-
ing procedures and ICT-systems. The reports about the
various sub-projects more and more acted as internal
bench and as vehicles for administrative and organiza-
tional improvements (“standard issues” for instance
were—in terms of time and cost—technical development,
risk calculation, human capacity, environmental develop-
ments and communication) for the central management.
At the same time, contract-reality became detached from
the “day to day” organizational practices and the prob-
lems that were experiences in terms of internal coopera-
tion, communication, team spirit and trust in the quality
of the project outcome. Internal organizational audits (pin-
pointed to major organizational-cultural problems
and related risks in terms of communication gaps, unin-
spiring management concepts/styles and internal distrust.
Although the (q uarterly and annu al) reports were avai-
lable via the intranet, only a small group of professionals
were able to read and interpret the report results. Pro-
ject-agency managers “translated” the results in terms of
their own organizational reality and strategically pre-
sented the information for own purposes [20]. In ALPHA,
the complexity reduction approach leads to multiple or-
ganisational weaknesses. Entrepreneurship, innovation
and courage, marked as critical issues by almost all key
ALPHA players in the frontstage, become completely
subordinate as a result of quotidian concerns and cost-
related arguments. In the actual practice of the project
team members, innovation appears to boil down to a
simple struggle for survival by means of the creative
translation of common agreements, pushing and pulling
around points of contention, establishing internal coali-
tions and looking after one’s own interests.
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Making Sense of Environmental Complexity in a Reform Context: The Case of Megaproject Alpha
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. AJIBM
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