An important, but often overlooked, role many small business owners play is chief technology officer. And that’s no small role, a new survey from the National Small Business Association (NSBA) shows.

Despite the many challenges posed by keeping up with the rapid pace of change in technology , 98 percent of the small business owners polled by the NSBA for its 2010 Technology Survey, think it is important to keep up with new technology. When you consider how much time these owners spend daily on their computers, you can see the significance of this issue.

“Small businesses look to technology as a critical tool to increase efficiency and grow business networks, which is particularly important now given the downturned economy,” said Larry Nannis, NSBA chair, in a foreword to the study.

The average small business has 19 computers, ranging from servers to laptops for travel, the report showed. Nearly half (47 percent) of the respondents said they spend three to five hours per day on a computer and almost four out of ten (39 percent) spend more than six hours a day in front of their computer screens.

This reliance on digital technology poses challenges for small businesses. One-quarter of respondents handle all tech issues for their companies and nearly half of the owners surveyed (43 percent) said they spend more than two hours per week addressing technology problems.  They cite security as their number one technology issues with cost coming in a close second.

Increasingly, the study found, owners are deploying technology to streamline, make their businesses more efficient and network. Nearly nine out of ten (89 percent) have a web site for their business, but only about one out of four (26 percent)actually sell their products or services online. A large minority (47 percent) said they use sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook for business networking .

Technology is also making workplace arrangements more flexible for small businesses, the study found. The acceptance of telecommuting has skyrocketed. In 1997, the NSBA said, only nine percent of small businesses allowed telecommuting. Today, that figure stands at 44 percent.

Technology doesn’t just play a prominent role in how small businesses are operated, the study revealed; it oftentimes is a key business practice. Small business owners have always led innovation and been incubators for new technology, the study said. In fact, small businesses hold 13 times more patents per employee than large companies.

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Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at nsmith@techmedianetwork.com.  Follow him on twitter @nedbsmith