In search of Eureka: How deadlines and governance arrangements affect the enactment of roles within major collaborative research programmes


Alistair Marsden

Southampton, UK


This dissertation presents an exploratory case study of how participants in a technology project from two organisations within a major collaborative research programme make sense of trust-control dynamics and cultural-governance relationships and how this affects the enactment of roles. Using grounded theory and Freytag’s plot pyramid to help make sense of the case study it argues that deadlines can undermine trust and that governance mechanisms are strongly influenced by epistemic and organisational cultural factors that further mitigate against building trust between the participants. Mistrust causes the enactment of transactional roles within a rigid control environment contradicting the less rigid control environment specified within the formal contract. These enacted roles, in turn, further contribute to mistrust and the participants find themselves trapped in a vicious circle. The implications for research and practice are discussed and further research questions are proposed.


This dissertation seeks to answer the question ‘how do deadlines and governance mechanisms affect the enactment of roles within major collaborative research programmes?’ This is an important inquiry because it builds on existing research that identifies the lack of knowledge of social complexity as a significant cause of major programme failure (Hodgson and Cicmil, 2003; Williams, 2005). It takes a fresh approach to this knowledge gap, using case study research within a major collaborative research programme whose sole declared intention is the development of knowledge. This is particularly interesting because the case study focuses on the collaborative development of knowledge within deadlines, thus facilitating an investigation of the trust-control dynamics and the cultural-governance that underpin social complexity.

The importance of the research question is further emphasised by two concurrent recent phenomena: the proliferation in the late twentieth century of both major programmes used to address the various complex challenges faced by society (Flyvbjerg et al., 2003) and ‘Big Science’ facilities that bear witness to the emergence of the organisation, rather than the individual, as the driver of science (Knorr-Cetina, 1999; Ziman, 1994). The annual costs of the CERN research establishments of circa $1 billion gives an indication of the scale of these types of facilities (CERN, 2011). Whilst the rise in major collaborative research programmes makes them a key focus for organizational theorists (Knorr-Cetina, 1999; Latour and Woolgar, 1986; Price, 1986), little consideration has been given to the influence of deadlines on the enactment of research roles.

To explore this question, the dissertation investigates the perspectives of participants from two organisations working together on a project to develop new technology within a major High Energy Physics (HEP) research programme. This is investigated through a grounded theory analysis of data collected from interviews, meeting observations, field observations and secondary data sources. The findings and discussion are presented using Freytag’s plot pyramid (Freytag and MacEwan, 1900). This provides insights into how participants understand and enact their roles in the context of both time-constrained research and the governance mechanisms used to align goals, mediate conflict and build trust.


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Editor’s note: This paper was prepared for the MSc. Major Programme Management course at Said Business School, University of Oxford, UK.  The course is led on the academic side by Professor Bent Flyvbjerg.  Dr. Eamonn Molloy was dissertation supervisor. The author graduated in 2014.

About the Author

pmwj25-aug2014-Marsden-AUTHOR IMAGEAlistair Marsdenflag-uk

Southampton, UK

Alistair Marsden is a chartered accountant and qualified programme manager with over twenty years of experience leading various large-scale organisational change programmes within medical devices, fast moving consumer goods and logistics organisations.  He graduated in Economics from the University of York and has an MSc in Major Programme Management from Said Business School, University of Oxford where he graduated with a distinction and received the Dean’s Award for Best Overall Student. His research has explored how behaviours are influenced by deadlines and cultural-governance dynamics, especially within the context of projects that seek to develop the knowledge needed to solve socially complex challenges.  Future research interests include accounting for benefits arising from research and the cultural identity of the accountancy profession especially in the context of research. He is currently the Assistant Director of Finance at the University of Southampton.  Alistair can be contacted at [email protected]