We have investigated the structural and local atomic properties of Ge nanocrystals (Ge-ncs) embedded ZnO (ZnO: Ge) thin films. The films were deposited by sequential sputtering of ZnO and Ge thin film layers on z-cut quartz substrates followed by an ex-situ rapid thermal annealing (RTA) at 600 degrees C for 30, 60, and 90 s under forming gas atmosphere. Effects of RTA time on the evolution of Ge-ncs were investigated by x-ray diffraction (XRD), scanning electron microscopy (SEM), hard x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (HAXPES), and extended x-ray absorption fine structure (EXAFS). XRD patterns have clearly shown that fcc diamond phase Ge-ncs of sizes ranging between 18 and 27 nm are formed upon RTA and no Ge-oxide peak has been detected. However, cross-section SEM images have clearly revealed that after RTA process, Ge layers form varying size nanoclusters composed of Ge-ncs regions. EXAFS performed at the Ge K-edge to probe the local atomic structure of the Ge-ncs has revealed that as prepared ZnO: Ge possesses Ge-oxide but subsequent RTA leads to crystalline Ge structure without the oxide layer. In order to study the occupied electronic structure, HAXPES has been utilized. The peak separation between the Zn 2p and Ge 3d shows no significant change due to RTA. This implies little change in the valence band offset due to RTA. (C) 2015 AIP Publishing LLC.