Education on line > Articles in English > Learning and Development: Lessons from History

Although there’s nothing new about learning and development (L&D), each generation must re-learn its important principles. Henry Ford’s much-reported comment that ‘history is bunk’ ignores the old saying that those who don’t learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.

Some say the first human resources (HR)/ L&D guru was the Roman, Lucius Iunius Moderatus Columella. His tract on agriculture, ‘De re rustica’, written in the first century, could also be the world’s first management book.

Realising that effective people management was essential to make a farm productive, Columella recommended ‘family-friendly’ measures. He argued that happy workers give you a better performance. Unhappy workers might not walk away – not if they were slaves – but they could kill you.

Columella said that people respond best if they’re looked after and promised some reward. Sick workers need care. Cells, he said, should have natural light and workers needed durable, good quality, work clothes in which to perform their duties. He even suggested regular consultations between master and slaves.

His proposals focused on increasing productivity, especially via fostering worker loyalty and obedience. Importantly – when the prevailing approach was to manage by fear – ‘De re rustica’ recognised that people respond well to empathy, encouragement and empowerment.

Some 20 centuries later, similarly enlightened management practices still appear far from widespread. Workers continue to fear – failure, demotion, losing their competitive edge through failing to keep their knowledge and skill levels up-to-date and, ultimately, losing their jobs.

Yet we know that happier workers tend to be more productive and engaged – and you can make workers happier by investing in them by offering them L&D opportunities. They may stay longer with your team or organisation because they feel you value them by investing in their development. That reduces your organisation’s recruitment, selection and induction (onboarding) costs and can improve your organisation’s efficiency and effectiveness. ‘De re rustica’ may be the first management book but there are even older books on leadership – notably ‘Tao Te Ching’ by Lao-Tzu, along with Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’. Both books – written over 2,000 years ago – outline the principles of leadership, influence, negotiation skills and so on. All these books illustrate that there’s nothing new – and, if today’s leaders could apply just ten per cent of this wisdom, the world would be a better place.

Knowledge transfer

Humans had been using printing skills – in China – for 600 years before the 15th century saw the invention of the printing press, in Germany. These skills – and subsequent refinements to ‘knowledge transfer technology’ – have helped to make knowledge increasingly widely available. But others have used these same skills and technologies to spread disinformation as propaganda or ‘fake news’. This counteracts or, at least confounds, some of the benefits of spreading the lessons of history.


In a further dip into business-related history, the book, ‘A Distant Mirror’, by Barbara Tuchmann, which draws heavily on ‘Froissart’s Chronicles’, offers HR and L&D-related business truths from the 14th century. Among these is that the 14th century embraced – unconvincingly – the case for outsourcing.

At that time, the Italian city states decided that fighting wasn’t their core business. So, they outsourced this activity to groups of redundant knights and other disbanded professional soldiers, known as condottiere. The results weren’t encouraging.

The English condottiero, Sir John Hawkwood, appears to have been unusual in keeping to his agreement with whoever had hired him for the duration of the contract. Others, however, changed allegiance at the drop of a ducat – and even Hawkwood stated that, if the money wasn’t good enough, he was ready to turn out for the enemy in the next fighting season.

Dealing with these outsourced, freelance fighters required both considerable negotiating skills and a large budget. Some employers then – as is increasingly the case now, too – must have wondered whether all this outsourcing was worth the money and effort.

So, outsourcing – a popular option for the L&D function today – isn’t new. It appears a cheap option for something that’s not an organisation’s core business but, as the Italian city states discovered, outsourcing brings its own challenges and costs – and these can become troublesome and unacceptable. If so, it makes the process inefficient and uneconomic.


The 14th century included widespread outbreaks of the Black Death – an ultimate downsizing exercise. Survivors benefitted because the reduction in the labour supply drove up wages. These surviving workers also began demanding other things – such as increased information. The subsequent invention of the printing press increased the supply of information and prompted challenging the authorities’ long-espoused views on ‘the way things are’. People questioned whether – and how – life could be made better. This led to the Renaissance and the Reformation which, in turn, prompted new technologies and, thus, industries, jobs and skills. The lesson is that, initially, downsizing may seem an unwelcome idea – particularly if you’re part of the downsizing exercise. Yet it can prompt new initiatives, technologies, skills and career opportunities.

Dress Codes

There were even laws about what people could wear in the 14th century. These ‘sumptuary laws’ were, first, challenged and then ignored, as social change progressed.

So, ‘Dressing Down’ opportunities to be more relaxed in terms of business attire are far from modern inventions. Moreover, for many reasons – avoiding sexism among them – acceptable business dress codes are being increasingly challenged in this century in a similar way to the challenges to the 14th century’s fashion laws.

History has lots to teach us – so why aren’t we learning these lessons?

We all know 15 minutes of exercise each day keeps us healthier but we don’t do it – because it’s easier not to. It’s the same with learning the lessons of history.

As an L&D professional, it’s easy to get distracted by new models and technologies – but we should ensure we understand and apply the basics.

About Bob Little

Having graduated from the University of Wales with a BSc in economics, Bob Little became a journalist and editor specialising in the corporate training/ learning sector. In May 1990, having founded his own public relations business, he was introduced to what became the corporate online learning technologies industry and has worked in this sector – worldwide – ever since as a writer, commentator and publicist.

Bob has advised many organisations around the world – ranging from niche companies to large, multi-national enterprises, including BBC Worldwide (UK), the Tata Group (India) and Lattanzio Group (Italy). He has spoken at conferences on corporate learning in the UK, the USA, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Germany. He has also chaired corporate learning related conferences in the UK, the USA, Croatia, Germany and Australia.

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