Remembering Bonnie Johnson Shurman
Remarks by Terry Winograd for a memorial service in Palo Alto, June 22, 2011
It is both with great sadness and with great pleasure that I join you today in celebrating Bonnie's life. She and Daniel have been an inspiration in my own life, as I'm sure is true for many of you. There are many different perspectives from which Bonnie can be appreciated, and the one I will focus on today is my experience of Bonnie as a great teacher.
Bonnie began her career in the way you might expect of a teacher - getting her PhD, publishing a book, and taking a faculty position teaching Business Communications. But as she went through a rich and varied life she showed that true teaching comes in many forms.
My first acquaintance with Bonnie came through my collaboration with Fernando Flores, who is here today, when we were developing a computer system that embodied fundamental linguistic principles to change the nature of communication in organizations. There was a clear connection of perspectives: the title of her first book was "Communication: The process of organizing."
Bonnie was working for Aetna Insurance, hardly what you think of as an intellectually adventurous company. But she had created a position where she could explore the fundamental nature of communication and speech acts. She was an early adopter and champion of an approach to communication that centers on how people use language to create action and commitment as a basis for coordination. She was able to translate this into the kinds of practical applied knowledge that the company called for. She got them to experiment with new communications tools, one of which was our system, The Coordinator. Raul Medina Mora, who was part of the team creating it said: "She became our "hero" because she was a believer in The Coordinator when very few people did. Bonnie was a breath of fresh air, at a time when people were not even willing to use a personal computer, let alone e-mail or coordination tools." Her book "Managing organizational innovation: the evolution from word processing to office information systems" was a major contribution to the whole field of computer supported organization and work.
When Interval Research was created, I took a sabbatical and worked with the emerging Interval team to develop a research agenda. I was pleased to see Bonnie join and I collaborated with her on several projects, which David will be talking about. At Interval, she taught everyone--even those of us with years of experience--about the true meaning of Human Centered Design. She taught through example, and through mentoring of many young people who joined into the exciting research environment at Interval. Her approach embodied the principal that design is ontological -- we aren't designing things that people use, but are designing ways of being.
After I went back to teaching courses on human-computer interaction at Stanford, I developed a course called "Human-Computer Interaction: Contextual and Organizational Issues." When I started that course, I was fully aware that I didn't have the background to really teach the "organizational" part, and I looked for a partner to be a co-teacher. For three years in the late 90s, I had the great fortune co-teach the course with Bonnie, which was a delight both for me and the students. She brought a wealth of experience from working in large complex organizations. At the same time she had the background in the theory of communication, including phenomenological philosophy, which gave an intellectual depth to her teaching. She was amazingly skilled at coaching student teams who did projects in a wide variety of companies, and their successful projects reflected Bonnie's wisdom. Their learning was later reflected in many of the great startups in Silicon Valley.
After Interval closed, I no longer had professional contact with Bonnie, but maintained a friendship with her and with Daniel. Although in some sense her turn to a life in the ministry seemed incongruous with her career in technology, I see it as a next step in her development to finding ways that teaching can be most meaningful and effective in people's lives. I come from the Jewish tradition, in which the leader of the congregation is the "Rabbi," a word which means not preacher, but teacher. Through her ministry Bonnie was able to teach new dimensions of living and communicating.
And of course Bonnie took her life's greatest challenge as another opportunity to learn and to teach. Through her long journey of health problems, treatments, victories, and setbacks, she and Daniel were continuous learners and teachers. This was especially valuable for me, as my wife Carol was encountering her own complex long-term health challenges. We gained inspiration from their experiences. and we talked with them about the possibilities for creating a more human-centered health care system.
We met with Daniel just a few weeks ago to discuss their plans for completing a book that will be a guide to help others through difficult health problems. They had creative plans to make it more than just a book of their experiences, though those alone are more than enough to make it a great book. In helping others learn how to deal with complex and demanding health issues, this book will carry her teaching into the future.
We and many others around the world have all learned much from Bonnie and feel her loss greatly. She leaves a legacy that will inspire us to strive to have the generosity and wisdom she has shared. Thank you, Bonnie, for helping us learn.