05 Sep 2013

Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus John E. Bishop Dead at 93

Mathematician was a pioneer in the development of decision theory and use of computer technology at Harvard
John E. Bishop
Photo: Baker Library Historical Collection

BOSTON—John E. Bishop, a longtime Harvard Business School (HBS) faculty member who helped pioneer the development of decision theory and taught managerial economics and business operations courses at the School, died on Monday, Aug. 12, 2013, after complications from a stroke at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass. He was 93.

In the fall of 1955, Bishop was in his fourth year of teaching at Tufts University while completing his dissertation for a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Chicago. As much as he had enjoyed the classroom, he was thinking about finding a permanent job in industry once he received his doctorate. Trying to plan ahead, he called a friend for some suggestions about prospective employers. Although that phone call provided Bishop with no leads in the private sector, it changed his career plans forever.

“After our initial conversation,” Bishop remembered in a 1994 Harvard Business School interview, “my friend called back and asked if I would be interested in working informally with some HBS professors who wanted to increase their level of sophistication in mathematics at a time when operations research was becoming popular at business schools. I knew nothing about business, but I agreed.”

For the next several months, he met on Tuesday afternoons with a small group of HBS professors, learned about their interests in using mathematics to help create models and solve business problems, and introduced them to techniques and ways of thinking they could apply in their work. “Dean Stanley Teele must have kept track of all this,” Bishop said, “because a few months later, he surprised me by offering me a job.”

After joining the HBS faculty in 1956, Bishop immersed himself for several years in learning the language and culture of business, as well as what was being done in the field of operations research. In addition, he noted “I was developing my teaching skills in a pedagogy that was completely new to me – the case method. It was a total learning experience.”

Based in the School’s Production and Operations Management (POM) unit (now Technology and Operations Management), Bishop was a member of the late Professor Robert Schlaifer’s research group, which pioneered the development of decision theory. “Bob [was] a strong influence on my life and development,” Bishop stated. “While I helped him with technical issues, I admired the confidence and clarity of purpose he displayed in resolving complex problems.”

In class, Bishop proved to be a gifted teacher. “He had a remarkable ability to make quantitative concepts comprehensible to his students, even those with limited background in mathematics,” the late HBS professor Keith Butters once observed. When he was named a full professor in 1963, Bishop chaired the then-required first-year course in Managerial Economics from 1967 to1969 and was active in the development of several new electives, including Topics in Operations Analysis and Cases in Managerial Economics.

During this time, Bishop co-founded a consulting company called Applied Decision Systems (which was later sold to Temple, Barker & Sloane) in order to put into practice some of the ideas that had emerged from decision theory. Since computer were then beginning to have an impact on business, some of the firm’s consulting involved applications of that new technology.

When Harvard University was looking for a professor to be the first director of its newly created Office for Information Technology (OIT), therefore, Bishop was the perfect choice. In his two years in that position, he succeeded in structuring OIT so that it encouraged the use of computer technologies throughout Harvard.

After two years of this intense hands-on experience, Bishop returned to HBS to teach senior executives in the Advanced Management Program. In 1976, he rejoined the POM unit and taught MBA students for a decade before joining the faculty of the School's Owner/President Management Program (OPM), an executive education program for entrepreneurs. Asked to teach Management Control to the participants, Bishop brought his unique brand of creativity to the task. He transformed a course that had focused primarily on accounting practices into one with an expanded view of corporate control as a dynamic process of organizational learning and continuous improvements.

In 1994 Bishop received a Distinguished Service Award from Harvard Business School for his outstanding service to the School and to the field of business education.

John Edward Bishop was born on Oct. 21, 1919, in New Harbour, Hermitage Bay, Newfoundland. In 1937, he began his college education by completing a two-year program at Memorial College before going on to Mount Allison University, where he received his bachelor of arts degree in 1943. He earned master's (1949) and Ph.D. (1959) degrees, both in mathematics, from the University of Chicago.

Bishop’s talents also shone brightly in several outside activities. For thirteen years, he served on the board of Blue Cross of Massachusetts and was elected vice chairman of the joint board of Blue Cross/Blue Shield when those two organizations merged in 1989.

In honor of his retirement from the board, Bishop was presented with a plaque that gives some sense of the importance of his contributions to that group: “Institutions are truly fortunate when they are able to attract to their governing bodies individuals possessing exceptional skills in analysis and problem resolution, “ the citation reads in part. “Your capacity to identify, examine, evaluate, and explain issues and avenues for resolution was of critical importance to the organization.”

After retiring from the active faculty in 1990, Bishop, who lived in Belmont, Mass., for many years with his wife, Elizabeth (Weimer), was involved in a start-up that developed a new approach to building information systems.

Beyond his work and family, Bishop loved the ocean and was an accomplished sailor who spent countless days on the open water in his 37-foot sailboat, Shanadithit. He spent many summers cruising between Gloucester, Mass., and his native Newfoundland, once making the journey singlehandedly.

In addition to his wife, Bishop is survived by their daughter, Catherine Elizabeth, of Lafayette, Louisiana. Funeral services were private. No decision about a memorial service has been made at this time.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be sent to Memorial University of Newfoundland, c/o The Office of Alumni Affairs & Development, 20 Lambe’s Lane, St. John’s, NL, Canada A1C 5S7, or online at http://www.munalum.ca/Giving-to-Memorial.


Cullen Schmitt

About Harvard Business School

Founded in 1908 as part of Harvard University, Harvard Business School is located on a 40-acre campus in Boston. Its faculty of more than 250 offers full-time programs leading to the MBA and PhD degrees, as well as more than 175 Executive Education programs, and Harvard Business School Online, the School’s digital learning platform. For more than a century, faculty have drawn on their research, their experience in working with organizations worldwide, and their passion for teaching, to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. The School and its curriculum attract the boldest thinkers and the most collaborative learners who will go on to shape the practice of business and entrepreneurship around the globe.