Purpose The purpose of this paper is to explain the link between national business system (NBS) and innovation decisions at the firm level by offering sequentially ordered sense-making mechanisms that enable the formation of firm-specific knowledge repositories and knowledge-processing capabilities. Design/methodology/approach This study engages in an extensive scale development effort to collect representative data about the NBS in the Pakistani setting, complemented by relevant validity and reliability tests. The overall theoretical model was tested on 214 firms by means of a structural equation modeling approach, using partial least-squares algorithms. Findings The results statistically supported the role of firm-level knowledge repositories (intellectual capital) and knowledge exploration and exploitation capabilities (absorptive capacity) as sequential mediators in the association of NBS and firm-level innovation. Besides, bridging networks of lateral ties among Pakistani businesses are found to be more effective than bonding networks of vertical ties in encouraging radical innovations. Originality/value This study significantly extends the literature about the NBS approach. It provides specific sense-making mechanisms (i.e. priming, triggering and editing) about how abstract institutional templates constituted at the business system level are translated into firm-level actionable sets by the help of intangible resource repositories and processes that guide knowledge exploration and exploitation.