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Organizational Culture and Individual Sensemaking: A Schema-Based Perspective

Stanley G. Harris
Organization Science
Vol. 5, No. 3 (Aug., 1994), pp. 309-321
Published by: INFORMS
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2635133
Page Count: 13
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Organizational Culture and Individual Sensemaking: A Schema-Based Perspective
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Abstract

Organizational culture encompasses both individual and group-level phenomena. However, to date, the individual-level dynamics of organizational culture have remained relatively neglected. This paper addresses this neglect by focusing on culture's manifestation in individuals' sensemaking structures and processes. Building off the social cognition literature, I propose that organizational culture's influence on individual sensemaking is revealed in the operation of a patterned system of organization-specific schemas. Schemas refer to the cognitive structures in which an individual's knowledge is retained and organized. In addition to being knowledge repositories, schemas also direct information acquisition and processing. They guide answering the questions central to sensemaking efforts: "What or who is it?," "What are its implications; what does it mean?," and "How should I respond?" After a brief review of schema theory, the categories of schema knowledge relevant to understanding sensemaking in organizations and the cultural influences on their emergence are examined. The conscious and unconscious operation of these schemas in the actual process of making sense of organizational stimuli is framed within a schema-directed, intrapsychic, mental dialogue perspective on social cognition. Specifically, I propose that in the social setting of organizations, individuals make sense out of their experiences based in large part on the outcomes of contrived mental dialogues between themselves (e.g., "I think it means this and I would be inclined toward this response") and other contextually-relevant (past or present; real or imagined) individuals or groups (e.g., "What would my boss and peers think about this? What would they want me to do?"). The content of the argument provided for others is guided by the individual's schemas for those others. I close the paper by discussing the ways in which this schema-based perspective enhances our understanding of the individual experiences of cultural sharing, subcultural boundaries, and psychological attachment.

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