King chose to release his latest novel piece by piece over the Internet, where fans of the best-selling author can download segments and are asked to send $1 a pop for the privilege. There is no guarantee of payment, but early returns reveal that 75 percent of the readers have ponied up the money.
So what does that have to do with a huge telecommunications company that was gobbled up last October by the larger SBC Communications?
"(King) is literally rewriting the publishing business," explains Woods. "He is circumventing publishers."
It's too early to determine whether this is good or bad for the industry, if it will become widespread or even if it will ultimately succeed. But it must have some executives in the publishing industry biting their nails.
"What's important is these things are going on," Woods says. "I don't think as business leaders we can afford to ignore that. We need to recognize that this kind of change (exists) and people are taking risks and shifting the game. How are business leaders going to respond? What things can they do in their own world that shift and change?"
It is Woods' job to make sure Ameritech Ohio leads the telecom industry in innovation and does so by responding to the needs of its customers. The company began to take the innovative approach right about the time Woods took the presidential post.
"My career really explains or tracks the change that went on in this industry, particularly at Ameritech and SBC," she says. "When I was named to come out here in '93, I was the first person in the Ameritech group to be named to the head of an operating unit that wasn't an engineer. We viewed ourselves as an engineering and technology company. I had a marketing background and customer service background. That was really kind of a watershed."
Woods took that mandate and has directed the company through a number of changes.
Serve your customers
Innovation is not about finding the latest technology.
Although Ameritech has plenty of engineers and programmers to do just that, Woods wants to make sure that her company serves customers' needs quickly and adeptly. It was with that approach in mind that Ameritech divided into business units, with each new entity focusing on a particular clientele.
"At Ameritech/SBC, we have a group that only worries about small business customers," Woods says. "(We look at) how to meet their needs, what products to provide them, the way they want to do business, the way they want to interact with us, how they want to be sold to, how they want to be billed."
Changes in call waiting and the voice mail services reflect the company's approach. When voice mail first came out, customers looked for more flexibility and more options. The company responded.
"One of the things that we view as both an opportunity and a responsibility in dealing with businesses is to help them view technology as an enabler for their business plan and for their strategy," she says. "How can we help them make the technology methods transparent? Too often, businesses focus on the how of the technology and the what of the technology rather than the product."
"Both innovation and risk are essential ingredients," Woods says. "They've always been there, it's just I see them more today throughout the market. Whether you're a one-person start-up or a several-billion-dollar conglomerate, it seems that both innovation and risk now really are on the forefront. I relate that to the tech stocks and how they rise and fall with almost kind of a whim.
"Technology is causing us to rewrite the rules. It certainly brings tremendous opportunity. What we see is that it really breaks down, and this is really an advantage to small businesses, the barriers of time and distance. You have the ability through technology to be everywhere, improve productivity and create all kinds of new services and try them in the market pretty quickly. (Companies today) go out with these products on the Web, and if it is something that doesn't work, they'll they yank it off tomorrow."
It wasn't always that way. Deregulation changed the market.
"If we looked back prior to the early '90s, we never put a product on the shelf that we ever took off," Woods says. "It was the regulatory process. Once you went through getting it all filed, the tariffs and approved, you just left it there even if people didn't buy it.
"Now we say, let's put products out there and if, in fact, it isn't something somebody wants, we're going to take it out. We'll remove it or we'll change it."
Know where to look
Woods recognizes that innovation comes from a variety of sources.
"You don't just have a group of smart people that are going to sit around and be the innovators," she says. "We have all kinds of innovative ideas that come from front line workers."
SBC has more than 200,000 employees. When you add in retirees, families and customers, there are many minds to tap. But even with all that, the company does not try to do everything itself.
"Rather than building up the whole United States, we partnered with Bell South and so together we can put our capabilities, our resources together and provide better services to a larger group of customers," Woods says. "(Also) we do have a technology lab, where we work with manufacturers and with software people and with our application specialists and bring them all into a laboratory environment. We'll even let customers come in if they want to try some of what they're doing and help them work through, 'How's this going to all work together?'
"Customers are looking at what they need to do. And they're saying, 'Help me come up with this. Don't stand here and tell me you don't provide part of this or you don't know how I would get from here to here.
"If you're going to be my primary partner in this, then you go figure out how to do this.'" How to reach: Ameritech Ohio/SBC, (216) 822-8300
Daniel G. Jacobs (email@example.com) is senior editor of SBN.