RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — If a new survey from Forbes is any indication, the mental acuity of executives in the upper atmosphere of many companies is improving quickly when it comes to technology.

Just as Sarbanes-Oxley has re-ignited interest in something called corporate ethics or face jail time, so has the rapidly evolving world of high tech forced may c-level people to adapt and thus adopt PDAs, hand-helds, cell phones, e-mail and the web or face business extinction.

Remember those commercials about the seemingly no-nothing CEO being escorted closely to his next meeting by aides who did everything from brushing dandruff off his shoulders to pulling toilet paper from his shoes?

What they don’t see is even worse. “Gentlemen,” he says, greeting his guests with a big grin. And on his teeth is a piece of lettuce.

A lot of people also used to joke that CEOs had little understanding of technology, needing help from their assistants to unravel the voicemail maze and to read than new-fangled e-mail. Oh, and what’s a browser?

To find out how techno-literate executives utilize the web and other tools, Forbes conducted an online survey from Dec. 19 to Jan. 31 of some 19,000 executives who were part of a e-mail “opt-in” list. Of those, 11,350 responded. (One lucky winner gets $500 for participating.) Now granted the fact the execs already were on an e-mail list means they must be literate in terms of e-mail at least, but that is a pretty big raw number.

Forbes broke the responses down into three categories: all respondents; c-level executives; and senior management (senior VP and above) in companies with more than 1,000 employees.

Some of the results are pretty interesting.

For example, 46.1 percent of all respondents access the web before they go to work; only 38 percent read the newspaper. Among C-level execs, the gap widens to 53 versus 41. Only senior management read the newspaper more, and by a slim .9 percent margin, 46 to 45.1. (Might want to think about that statistic, marketing folks, before signing that next big, expensive newspaper advertising contract!)

The leaders: Execs at biggest firms

Maybe the executives of larger firms are there for a reason. In several categories, this group led the other two:

  • Checking the web for business or financial news before going to work (44 percent)
  • Going online to research competitors and industry trends (43 percent)
  • Checking financial portfolio (43 percent)
  • reading business and financial site e-mail newsletters (42 percent)

Why, they even lead in online chats (16 percent)!

Also, note how they better maximize the time during the commute to work. (In all fairness, how many of them have drivers wasn’t listed.) Time is money. In every category surveyed about commuting, the execs at larger firms led:

  • Listen to radio (61.8 percent)
  • Talk on cell phone (43.8 percent)
  • Check schedule and e-mails on hand-held (21.4 percent)
  • Read magazine or book (17.2 percent)
  • Work on laptop (12.1 percent)

Online buyers and sellers

And talk about click-through rates. They also like to check out ads they see on the web. All (47 percent), c-level (48 percent) and leaders at large firms (49 percent) said they would click on ads on which they “find something interesting.”

These people also are on-line buyers. Thirty-four percent or higher in all three groups buy someone online at least once a month.

But there is still great room in improvement for the quality of content the execs find online. Only 56 percent of all the respondents said they found what they wanted online. A mere 44 percent said they found what they expect to find.

Reflecting the baby boomers’ fixation on health issues, some 40 percent are looking for medical or health information online.

Interestingly, the biggest online buyers and sellers of stock online are the execs at the large firms (32 percent), vs. just 18 percent for all and 24 percent of c-level execs.

Thirty-nine percent or more pay bills online.

A whopping 76 percent or more use search engines. (What’s your favorite? Mine is Google.)

Also, 49 percent or more use web-based e-mail.

This survey certainly seems to indicate the execs have found their way on the technology front. Fewer and fewer suits even are relying on assistants to help them with online chores. Of the 63 percent who rely on online research, 54 percent do so themselves. Of the 88 percent who use e-mail, 82 percent read their own.

So what’s the clincher — the one finding that truly establishes the fact that execs are truly hip?

Thirty-seven percent or more all use instant messenger.

How many of you thought IM was just for kids on AOL?

Rick Smith is managing editor of Local Tech Wire.