Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) tends not to flinch on spending for research and development. In its recent second quarter, for example, it spent nearly 30% of revenues on R&D -- partly in an effort to develop offerings to capture more business from small businesses.

Why would a firm devote such a big chunk to R&D? According to Bronwyn Hall, an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley, in the past, on average, every dollar invested in R&D has boosted a company's value by between $2 and $3. (In a thoughtful article, Ben McClure explained how to go about identifying companies that are making the most of R&D. He touched on Intel (NASDAQ:INTC), Sun Microsystems (NASDAQ:SUNW), Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ), Lucent (NYSE:LU), and Dell (NASDAQ:DELL), among other firms.)

But back to Microsoft. One of its R&D initiatives is fairly novel -- hiring anthropologist ethnographers to study the habits and routines of small businesses. Just as an ethnographer might live among a remote tribe of people, studying their kinship structures, these ethnographers spent time learning how small business owners organize their lives and run their operations.

One way that Microsoft has pursued small businesses is by spending some $2.4 billion to buy Great Plains and Navision business management software. It's also already offering some special products and services, such as its Small Business Center suite of online services, Microsoft Office Small Business Edition 2003, and free seminars.

It makes sense for Microsoft to target small businesses. For starters, there are a lot of them -- roughly 8 million in America and 32 million more abroad. The software giant already reaps big bucks from large companies, but especially in recent years, these customers have reined in their spending a bit. Then there's Linux, a competitor stealing some operating system business from Microsoft. Its growth is compelling Microsoft to compete. Big rivals such as IBM (NYSE:IBM), Dell, and Hewlett-Packard are also targeting small companies, while even Time Warner (NYSE:TWX) is warming up to the business community as opposed to individual consumers (read more about Time Warner's plans).

An Inc. magazine article notes that many businesses are wary of dealing with Microsoft, though: "A January Yankee Group survey of companies with fewer than 500 employees found that 43% of them are concerned about becoming overly reliant on Microsoft's products and services."

Interested investors should keep an eye on which companies are succeeding in grabbing the attention and dollars of small businesses. These little enterprises spend some $400 billion annually on technology, which could significantly boost the bottom lines of companies such as Microsoft.

By the way, if you'd like to engage in some R&D of your personal finances, check out our free trial available for our TMF Money Advisor service. It offers personalized, individual financial planning to help get your fiscal house in order. This is your big chance to ask a professional your questions about taxes, estate planning, retirement, and more.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Microsoft and Sun Microsystems.