Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to provide a qualitative analysis of change in order to understand which factors inhibit or, conversely, facilitate the enactment process of managers' performance appraisal and reward systems. Design/methodology/approach – The problem is investigated empirically through a multiple case study approach. The change processes that result from the adoption of performance appraisal and reward systems in six Italian central government institutions are illustrated in detail. Findings – The cases reveal differentiated patterns of organizational change and lead to a problematic overview. The desired technical and cultural organisational transformations are limited by an interplay of organisational and wider environment forces. Research limitations/implications – The findings are based on data from the Italian central government, and as such are not directly extendable elsewhere, although they may result to be of interest to other public sector organisations. Originality/value – The paper offers a comprehensive view of organisational change processes, ranging from the initial decision to adopt a managerial instrument to the final use of this instrument. A theoretical framework combining two, apparently diverging approaches, neoinstitutionalism and organisational change management, is used to better understand the plural factors that influence the change processes
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